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Relationships built on the love of cheese

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Since June 2010, Cheese Cave co-founder Marnie Clarke has stood behind the glass case filled with assorted cheeses; slicing open various wheels while helping locals find their next favorite flavor. Ms. Clarke describes the Claremont Village shop as a cut-to-order cheese counter with about 100 unique types of cheeses for sale.

“Cheese comes first with us,” she said passionately. “Now with everyone having to wear a mask and customers unable to taste any cheeses, it’s up to us cheesemongers to use colorful adjectives to describe the cheeses.”

The job of cheesemonger seems quite complex after speaking with Ms. Clarke. Although defining a few cheeses might sound easy, Ms. Clarke is able to describe the source, story and taste of each of her local, national and international cheeses as she offers recommendations

Ms. Clarke can even clarify the historical origin and cheese making process of her stock. From California Humboldt Fog, to Wisconsin Hook’s 10-year-old cheddar, to Spain’s Manchego el trigal.

“Before this pandemic we were giving people tastes of cheeses, making sure they left with what they wanted,” Ms. Clarke explained. “People really trust you and your recommendations here.”

Though Ms. Clarke is great at explaining her display and shop to newcomers, she’s also able to engage with and guide customers of various levels of cheese knowlege toward the right product.

“We’ll have a little conversation over the counter to find out what their plan is for the cheese,” Ms. Clarke said. “Are they making a cheese board? Are they making French onion soup? Are they going to make a quiche? All these different things decide how we recommend different cheeses.”

In addition to boasting a high inventory of cheeses, Ms. Clarke’s business also includes more than 30 different cuts of meat including a crowd-pleasing Prosciutto, five different types of sausage, and 20 types of cured cuts from around the world.

Beyond the signature meats and cheeses, shoppers can purchase everything they need for a gourmet cheese tasting experience including handcrafted jams, wines, chocolates, honey and crackers. You can also order a cheese board that Ms. Clarke or her crew will make for you utilizing their expertise.

For nearly 10 years, Ms. Clarke’s business was running strong and gaining traction. So much so, Cheese Cave’s co-founder and Marnie’s sister, Lydia Clarke, was able to expand to a second location in Downtown Los Angeles called DTLA Cheese, which she now manages.

COVID-19 hit the cheese industry particularly hard, forcing the Cheese Cave to shut their doors on March 18, 2020.

With no plan to move forward at the time, Ms. Clarke and her husband, Milan Dragojlovich, rode out the first month of the closures while exploring ways to keep the store open.

Mr. Dragojlovich devised a plan that involved turning the Cheese Cave into a downsized grocery store fulfilling special curbside pickup orders. Though the idea was met with skepticism from Ms. Clarke, the curbside business quickly grew in popularity, overwhelming the couple.

“I didn’t see how it was possible for people to buy things from our store without looking at them,” Ms. Clarke said. “But Milan was like, ‘they will, we’ll post stuff; write an entry for all the products. We’ll do what we have to.’”

Mr. Dragojlovich’s plan centered around buying extra supplies of what they already sold in-store such as produce, milk, cheese, wine, and once scarce essentials like toilet paper and wipes.

They continue to buy 50-pound bags of flour and rice which people sometimes purchase. For the average pantry however, either Mr. Dragojlovich or Ms. Clarke will repackage the large bags into smaller 5-lb bags for sale.

Though the curbside grocery plan was time consuming and eventually scrapped when the store reopened in November 2020, Ms. Clarke explained that customers can still preorder items mentioned on their website, and pick them up the next day.

On the site, customers can find pickup times and other details about how to place an order.

Because of the pandemic, Cheese Cave’s menu may be limited in some items. There were—and remain—supply chain issues impeding shipments of cheese, especially internationally. 

“There’s been a huge problem with imported cheeses. There’s not enough shipping containers because they’re stuck in ports off France and here. They can't cross the Atlantic,” Ms. Clarke said with frustration. “[During the pandemic] there was a glut of cheese and a lot of cheese makers stopped making cheese because they needed to sell their inventory.”

Makers were forced to part with their older aged cheeses to make up for their losses Ms. Clarke said. But now, places like Cheese Cave are seeing and selling some cheeses that are extremely rare.

“I guess the silver lining of this pandemic has been the great cheese we’ve gotten to try,” Ms. Clarke laughed. “Cheeses at 18 months are way better and more developed than an eight-month-old cheese.”

Though it can be overwhelming visiting the store the first time due to the enormous selection, Ms. Clarke said she never wants cheese to feel intimidating.

“It’s incredible the relationships we’ve been able to build with the community since we’ve been here,” Ms. Clarke became emotional saying. “It’s great the amount of people where we know what’s going on in their life—cheese really builds community and to me this is living proof.”

Cheese Cave is located at 325 Yale Ave, Claremont. If you want to check out Marnie’s selection of cheeses, view their website www.claremontcheese.com, call them at 909-625-7560, or visit them during store hours. Cheese Cave is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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