A note on the name: although townspeople, newspapers and even the Cheese Board website frequently spell the name of the business as a single word — "Cheeseboard" — the members of the collective chose to consistently refer to their business with two words in The Cheese Board: Collective Works, their cookbook/history published in 2003.
The Cheese Board was founded as a privately owned cheese shop in 1967 by Elizabeth and Sahag Avedisian (1930-2007). In 1971, the owners and their six employees converted their business from a conventional privately owned firm to an egalitarian worker-owned collective by distributing shares in the business equally between themselves and their employees and equalizing the wages of all of the new worker/owners. The semi-autonomous Pizza operation was started in 1990. The combined operation currently has over 40 workers.
When founded, the shop primarily sold cheese, but by the early 1970s the Cheese Board began to experiment with baking bread. Bread was originally produced in small quantities as an informal, impromptu sideline. Although bread sales were initially minor they marked a shift from a purely mercantile business model of buying and selling cheese to a mixed model that combines on-site, artisanal hand-production with domestic and import retail. The sale of baked goods grew rapidly and now accounts for a significant portion of the store's business. As the sale of bakery products grew so did the variety of breads, pastries and other baked goods offered. The Cheese Board: Collective Works reports that "The varying bread schedule is complex enough that even the workers have difficulty remembering it."
In 1990, a second semi-independent operation (which the members call an empowered committee), Cheese Board Pizza, was formed to produce pizza (originally sold as an occasional lunch and Friday night offering by the Cheese Board bakery) full time. The pizzeria has thrived since then and often has a line out the door during lunch and dinner. Cheese Board Pizza is unusual in that only one type of pizza (always vegetarian) is made each day and no substitutions are allowed. Because the same product is continually being produced, customers always receive their pizza fresh from the oven without waiting. Once a new pizza is ready, any remaining slices from the previous pizza are cut into slivers and used to even out the portions. The Cheese Board staff tend to favor unconventional pizza toppings and use only fresh, seasonal produce. In 2007, Cheese Board Pizza renovated their shop and expanded into the space at 1510 Shattuck formerly occupied by University Plumbing and Hardware. The enlarged dining area seats significantly more people and allows faster service. The restaurant still has a piano and reserves floor space for the small jazz groups that often perform during peak hours.
The Cheese Board was one of the first gourmet establishments in north Berkeley (along with Peet's Coffee) and its success contributed greatly to the development of the area into the "Gourmet Ghetto" it has become. Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse — one of the most famous restaurants in the United States — stated that she chose to locate her restaurant in North Berkeley "so the Cheese Board would be nearby, because I knew I would be among friends."
The Cheese Board has helped launch other cooperatives throughout its history. In 1971 it bid and won the contract to operative the Swallow Collective Cafe in the Berkeley Art Museum, an entity which initially was worked by Cheese Board members but eventually became its own cooperative business with as many as 30 members. In 1975 it funded and launched the Juice Bar Collective before similarly spinning off this operation. In 1976 the Cheese Board helped a member begin a cheese store on Donner Pass. In the 1980s, the Cheese Board contributed money and labor to a Bay Area cooperative network known as the Intercollective, a precursor to the present-day Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives. Through the Intercollective it funded the printing of a directory, map, and essays about local collectives, as well as a 1981 conference.
In the mid-1990s, after creating the Cheese Board Pizza, the collective continued its pattern of incubating new businesses, rather than expanding, by helping to create the Arizmendi Association of Cooperatives. This Association has replicated and refined three bakeries using the Cheese Board's recipes and organizational structure (in Oakland (1997), San Francisco(2000), and Emeryville(2003)). All four collectives are independently owned and operated, but share a technical support staff who provide financial, legal, and organizational services, and who are paid to continue replicating the model. All of the Arizmendi Bakeries have won "Best Bakery" award in local newspapers during their lifetime.