November 24, 2020 – Can we all agree that everything takes a bit more effort during this pandemic? There are more layers now to what were once-simple tasks, like going to the store or getting gas. Where is my mask? Did I forget my hand sanitizer? Is this store open still? These are all pretty standard internal questions at this point.
But for business owners, this pandemic has been even more complex. Figuring out the initial safety protocols and staying current with ever-changing guidelines is a baffling experience. Let alone keeping staff members employed and all the bills paid. So people who take the leap and start a business during this time show an incredible amount of courage, dedication and passion. Jillian Pirolo is one of these people.
Pirolo’s brand new artisan cheese store Cheese Shop 831, which opened this past weekend in the Brown Ranch Marketplace in Capitola, is a celebration of resilience. While her idea was born like a lightning bolt, the actual timeline to get the place open for business has been more like a slow drizzle. But determination to bring our community special, artisan cheese has kept Pirolo going and now we can share in her excitement and provide support by eating good cheese.
While Pirolo has some background working as a cheesemonger in her early 20’s, her career path diverted since then, although her love of cheese did not. When she moved back to the area after working all over the country, she realized that Santa Cruz was devoid of a place to find rare cheeses, like the one she had worked at in her younger days, or like The Cheese Shop in Carmel, almost an hour away. Once the idea hit her, she found the location (a former rock and gem shop) and signed a 5-year lease within weeks.
But that was just the beginning. “The city and county didn’t really know how to classify the shop, so it took about seven months to get everything approved and ready to go. Once that was finally done, I hired a contractor and then, about two weeks into construction, the pandemic hit. There was no progress for almost four months. I was blessed that I was given grace on two months rent. That gave me a fighting shot to actually be able to open,” she says.
Once things began to ease up after our initial shelter-in-place, construction began, which took several more months to complete. But now that her doors are finally open, she can reflect on the process.
“The best thing has been being able to create something from the ground up and seeing it come to fruition. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how many people are excited about the shop. I am so blessed to be able to bring a little joy into people’s lives during what, for many of us, is the hardest time we’ve been through,” she says. Yet there still remains some doubt, for obvious reasons.
It has been difficult watching other small businesses close down due to the pandemic. “Not only is it heartbreaking, but it makes you really wonder if you’re going to be able to survive. Also, wondering if the next shut down is around the corner. There was a lot of waiting and hoping. You try to not stress out, because there’s nothing you can do, but it really takes its toll,” Pirolo says.
With that in mind, she is going above and beyond the guidelines to keep people safe when in the shop. No more than three customers are allowed inside at a time and people can call in orders and opt for curbside pick up if desired. She will be setting up online ordering as well, to make everything as easy and safe as possible.
At this point, the shop is simply featuring cut-to-order cheeses, including many types that have never been sold here in town. For example, she is carrying Kenne and Atika from Toluma Farms in Tomales, as well as Boont Corners—a vintage tomme by Pennyroyal Farmstead in Boonville. And that is really what separates this new cheese shop from larger retailers. The cut-to-order method means that your items will be wrapped in special paper immediately after being cut, allowing the cheese to breathe, which makes it last much longer in your fridge.
“Shops that do not specialize in cheese generally use plastic wrap, which is not only bad for our planet, but it suffocates the cheese, causing it to go bad really quickly. Most cheese shouldn’t really go ‘bad’ in a matter of weeks or even months, they should just continue to age and evolve. Not to mention, you don’t really have a good idea of how long that piece of cheese has been sitting there,” Pirolo explains.
Another distinction about Cheese Shop 831 is that they work with two small distribution companies based in Petaluma and San Francisco, both of which focus on small batch, high quality products. Pirolo also sources directly from about 25 regional businesses, such as Wild Wonder, Aura Bora, Wilder Mustard, Big Island Lemonade, Gil’s Gourmet and Pacific Pickle Works, and she says that about half of her inventory is from these producers that are all small batch products.
“It’s much better for them this way, especially when they’re struggling…it’s difficult and often expensive to do business this way. It’s not really efficient, so bigger businesses, like grocery stores, tend to stay with the big distribution companies to save money and have a selection that doesn’t vary. But with the smaller producers, there’s a chance you may not be able to get something you had before because someone else beat you to it! The batches can be that small sometimes. An example…I ordered my olives from a little farmstead (which means every aspect of the production takes place in one location), in Orland, California, and it took about a month to get my olives because they literally had to harvest them for me.”
And while she started out with a vision of featuring over a hundred cheeses from all over the world, the pandemic shifted this perspective. “I’ve put a lot of focus on local and regional cheesemakers and farmsteads, as well as small batch, woman-owned, and socially and environmentally responsible businesses,” she explains. “That’s another thing…I get to help these struggling makers stay afloat in these crazy times. I couldn’t be happier about that!”
We can look forward to grilled cheese sandwiches and more take-out lunch and dinner items as Pirolo gets into the groove of running the business and what customers are looking for. She also plans to start a weekly “cheese adventure box” for those of us who want to try out new cheeses but might have a hard time trying to choose. She says, “I know cheese can be intimidating for some and I really want everyone to be able to try something different and maybe find a new favorite.”
So even if we can’t travel to Italy or France right now, maybe sampling a bit of their cheese can help take us there in spirit.
Cheese Shop 831 3555 Clares St. Capitola 831.515.7406