Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit janetfletcher.com to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.
Kiri Fisher’s cheese journey has been a difficult one, to say the least, marked by tragedy, natural disaster and rude awakenings. But Fisher, the spunky proprietor of the Cheese School of San Francisco and the new Fisher’s Cheese & Wine, which opens this week in California’s Marin County, has yet to hit a pothole she couldn’t get past.
Shortly after Fisher partnered with Daphne Zepos to purchase the five-year-old school, Zepos received a cancer diagnosis and succumbed in three months. Two years later, the school suffered devastating flood damage after a downpour. But Fisher got the doors open again and has steered the enterprise in new directions, keeping it viable as the only independent cheese school in the country. Her experience holds lessons for any would-be entrepreneur and a reminder that failure is often the prelude to success.
You were a young city-magazine publisher when the economy tanked in 2007-2008 and you had to fold. How did that experience lead you to cheese?
When we shut down, my calming image was that I was going to drive through that rainbow tunnel in Marin and hang out with some sheep. I was getting lucrative offers to work in advertising sales, but that was the part of publishing I hated the most. I went on Craig’s List and typed in “cheesemaker” and Point Reyes Farmstead was looking for one. I begged them for an interview. They said, “We love your passion but you don’t know anything about cheese.”
So they advised you to work in retail?
They said there’s no better way to learn about cheese than behind a retail counter. So I worked at the Pasta Shop in Oakland, interned on a goat farm in France and then worked at Tumalo Farms in Bend. That’s when I realized that I was not excited to be a cheesemaker. Cheesemaking is a lot of cleaning.
So you bought the Cheese School with Daphne.
Yes, and a year to the day after that, we had her memorial service at the school. I thought, “Now what am I going to do? Sell it?” I was open to any idea that felt better than running it on my own. But while I was trying to figure it out, the day-to-day business had to keep going. By the time I realized that the school was not throwing off enough income to attract another partner, I had figured out how to run it.
How has the school evolved since that time?
We threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall—we moved, we increased the class size, we limited the amount of alcohol we poured—and we lost some regulars in the process. But you need to grow and re-invent; the trick is making more people happy than you make unhappy.
We were doing all these serious classes for super-enthusiasts, but there’s only so much of an audience for deep dives into Cheddar or the microbiology of cheese rinds. We can sell “Mozzarella and Burrata Making” or “Crèmes and Bubbles” all day long. Anything on France or Italy—particularly France—sells. Here are the sell words: France. Wine. Best.
I’ve learned over time that we’re 10 to 15 percent academic and 85 to 90 percent entertainment. The Cheese School is a night out for people. But I love the business either way.
A standalone cheese school doesn’t make money but it’s a great addition to a cheese shop. And it’s an excellent way to feed a private-event program, catering and private classes. People come to the Cheese School for a class and then say, “Can I bring my team here?” We are in the land of team building, after all, and that has created a viable business.
And now Fisher’s Cheese & Wine. What’s the plan?
The retail cheese counter will have about 60 cheeses, international and domestic. Not a comprehensive selection but the most exciting cheeses out there. Lancashire, Cheshire, Gubbeen and Hafod from Neal’s Yard Dairy. Pascal Beillevaire cheeses from France. We have 48 seats indoors and out. We’re here for you if you are serving cheese for a party, and eventually we’ll have classes or tastings.
What’s next for the Cheese School of San Francisco?
We’ve been looking to move the school, and hopefully I’ll have an announcement soon about that.
Open daily from 11 a.m. for cheese, charcuterie, cheese boards, sandwiches, salads, cheese accompaniments, wine and beer.