Temescal’s Sacred Wheel sells cheese with a side of cool
on August 29, 2011
If the phrase “gourmet cheese store” conjures up an image of the food elite batting around unpronounceable words in a stodgy storefront, check out Temescal’s Sacred Wheel. The shop, which opened in January on a quiet corner at 49th and Shattuck, offers mostly local cheeses instead of pricier imports and other decadent edibles in a wholly unintimidating—and hip—atmosphere.
The building was a dilapidated, long-abandoned mess when owner Jena Davidson Hood and her husband (a contractor by trade) began work on it. They started from scratch, addressing basic needs like plumbing, and eventually turning their attention to the finer points, like converting a weathered truck bed into a display shelf, and old sheets of wood into expensive-looking window countertops. A colorfully spray-painted standing clock, rotating work from local artists, and a chalkboard with the days’ specialties round out the homey, brightly-lit space.
“I didn’t really know that much about cheese when I started, to be completely honest,” says Hood. “But it was always sort of one of my favorite things.” Hood, who moved to the Bay Area five and a half years ago from Virginia, was hoping to start a business tied to her culinary roots (she’s worked in the kitchen of chef great Michael Mina), but without the stress of being a restaurateur. Her passion for domestic, artisan foods made cheese an easy choice.
In Sacred Wheel’s case, the mantra is “like store, like owner.” The petite, personable Hood is well-decorated herself—tattoos run up and down her arms, and the letters M-I-L-K are inked across her fingers. She’s spunky and bright, much like her cheese shop, and she’s solicited the help of family and friends in evolving her business. Her mother, brother, and best friend all work at the store—as does a tall, hulking man behind the counter, who was cordially greeting customers on a recent Thursday morning.
“That’s Fernando,” says Hood, gesturing to her employee. “He used to be my bouncer when I bartended at Eli’s [Mile High Club], but now he works here. I can’t afford to hire five cheese experts to come and work with me here, so it really is a family and friends operation.”
Seated at a wooden table in the center of the shop, Hood talks about her products. “The farmstead cheese movement in the United States right now is huge,” she says, referring to an upswing in the number of small batch cheese producers. “There’s enough domestic cheeses being made that you can find an equivalent to almost any European staple. There are American Parmesans, American Goudas, American Roquefort-style blue cheeses, American Stilton-style blue cheeses. They’re just not called those things. Most of the names are clever, because that’s what American cheese makers do—they’re keeping it whimsical, they’re keeping it fun. It’s not super serious.”
Having said that, Hood doubles back to make it clear that what she’s selling is top-notch, and a few taste tests confirm that. (Sacred Wheel is very generous with samples—ask, and you shall receive.) There are offerings from all over California—well known cheese-making spots like Paso Robles, Pt. Reyes and Sonoma are all on Sacred Wheel’s map. There are cheeses from Utah and Vermont, and yes, a few imports, including a German Limburger, which Hood says she could eat by the spoonful. Customers can’t get enough of Midnight Moon, a firm, nutty goat, and Lamb Chopper, a buttery sheep’s milk, both from California company Cypress Grove Chevre. They also buy out a cheese from Utah’s Beehive Cheese Co. called Barely Buzzed—a sharp cheddar, coated in espresso and lavender.
There are also jams, pickles and pastries (many made in Oakland), and an extensive shelf for mustard to accommodate what Hood calls her “mustard fetish.” There’s vegan cheese and a shelf of products imported from Hood’s home state, Virginia. Sacred Wheel also offers hot lunch in the form of rotating combos—a soup or a salad plus a grilled cheese sandwich (carnivores: you can add whatever salty pork product Hood has on hand that week). The price tag for this gourmet meal? A whopping $5. The cheeses themselves vary in price from the ultra-reasonable to $35 a pound.
Hood says business is good, and only getting better. Getting started was a challenge, she says, thanks to the city’s endless maze of permits and fees, but now that things are up and running, she’s glad she set up shop in Temescal. She says her new role as a local business owner has really put her in touch with her community, and that Oakland feels like home now more than ever—she has a strong rotation of regular customers and first-timers popping in daily.
“The Bay Area is a great place to be a business owner because you don’t have to fit a typical image,” says Hood, referring to her penchant for body art. “My family in Virginia is begging me to come back and open up another shop there. But I’m from the town that Jerry Falwell’s from—it’s a very different world. I’d have to hire a whole bunch of other people to work out front and stay in the back.”
Oakland, though, is more forgiving of quirk, and Hood feels like she brought cheese to the right place at the right time. “Now that I know Oakland really well, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she says. “I love North Oakland—Temescal is definitely my favorite place. Everything is happening right here, right now. Every time you turn around, there’s something new. I’m glad we got in when we did.”
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