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Cheese Factory expansion still in the works, say developers

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Over the past week, the Sonoma Cheese Factory has turned from a local landmark and epicurean mainstay of the Sonoma Plaza into a “pop-up” business, opening its doors several days to sell off what remains of its food-related stock. Along with mixers, odd packaged goods and an occasional bottle of wine – as well as various materials from storage including “display fixtures, crates, baskets, picture stands, racks and more” – has been excavated for sale at ever-increasing discounts.

The sale of such fixtures have led to persistent rumors that the business at 2 W. Spain St. would be closing for good. However, the handful of employees working at this week’s sale insist that the Cheese Factory will reopen in April or shortly thereafter, agreeing with the owners’ Dec. 31 announcement that the 85-year-old business – 73 at this location – was closing merely for the winter.

And according to Steve Carlin, leader of the development team behind a proposed expansion of the iconic Plaza food store, plans to remodel the Sonoma Cheese Factory are still underway. Responding to concerns over the future of the Cheese Factory in the wake of its sudden temporary closure last week, Carlin said he’d have more details once a revised set of plans was finalized.

“In previous years, the Sonoma Cheese Factory remained open during the winter months with reduced days and hours,” read the Dec. 31 announcement from the Viviani Family. “As we enter 2019 and the slower retail season, we have decided to take a different approach and implement a temporary closure effective Jan. 1, 2019.”

The business, originally founded by Celso Viviani in 1931, is currently owned by the Nina & Maria Viviani Trust. Another family member, David Viviani – grandson of Celso and brother to the two sisters – is no longer part of the business operation.

But neither the Viviani family nor the developer of the proposed remodel of the Sonoma Cheese Factory, Steve Carlin of Napa’s Oxbow Market, would say the business was in its last days. The Vivianis’ Dec. 31 message ends with an optimistic “We look forward to seeing everyone in the spring!”

Meanwhile Carlin told the Index-Tribune in an email that he and his business partner, Lloyd Llewelyn, are moving ahead with their development plans for the historic property. “We are excited about the prospect of doing business in the City of Sonoma, and believe our local artisan marketplace concept is supported by the community and will be good for the city,” wrote Carlin in his message.

Neither Carlin nor Maria Viviani would speak on the phone, but both insist that Carlin’s proposal is still on the table and would move forward.

The proposal for what the Carlin Group is calling Sonoma Square Market totals 25,000 square feet of interior commercial space (slightly smaller than Oxbow’s 30,000 square feet) and includes two restaurant tenant spaces and a total of 245 indoor seats and 72 outdoor seats throughout the project.

The project was approved by the Planning Commission last spring but appealed to the Sonoma City Council by local property owners Tom and Ingrid Dunlap of the Swiss Hotel, and Jim and Hank Marioni, who own the building that houses Mary’s Pizza Shack. But before the appeal could be heard, on July 30, Carlin asked that the hearing be canceled while he evaluated the appeal’s documentation.

Among other objections, Hank Marioni questioned the scale of the proposed remodel. “The structure they were going to build there looked like a gymnasium,” he told the Index-Tribune, “with 22 different stalls and a 220-seat restaurant and no place to park.”

Marioni said running the Cheese Factory was not the place for an absentee manager.

“I think the Cheese Factory is a great opportunity for some family that wants to run a business, and be there,” he said. “I want to see the Cheese Factory succeed, just like everybody else does. But you really need somebody who’s not just an absentee owner.”

Though a revised plan for the property has not been submitted, Carlin reached out to City Manager Cathy Capriola and new Planning Commissioner David Storer in October to go over a revised project plan, according to Storer.

“They made contact with Cathy and we met in late October,” said Storer, who started work for the city on Oct. 9. “Steve and Lloyd talked with us about the options they were exploring, and we’re hoping to hear back from them.”

Though Storer wouldn’t speculate on what that plan might include, he suggested it might just go direct to the City Council in response to the appeal, instead of being resubmitted as a new plan to the Planning Commission.

“If it’s a tweak of a parking pace here or there, that’s a bit different that a difference of 1,000 square feet or something,” said Storer. “But it’s all hypothetical (at this point), to be honest.”

Meanwhile Carlin repeated in several email exchanges with the Index-Tribune that his company is committed to the Sonoma Cheese Factory remodel, saying he would “be happy to share more info... as we firm up our plans over the coming weeks.”

But even Maria Viviani doesn’t offer a firm response as to what lies ahead, or how far away that is - if a revised proposal will be submitted to the city before the scheduled reopening of the business in April. “Regarding the building development, we don’t have a current plan,” she told the Index-Tribune in a Dec. 31 email.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.