Not even America’s best pizzeria, Cheese Board in Berkeley, was spared from the pandemic – SF Gate


The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. The pizzeria has temporarily removed single pizza slices from its menu amid the pandemic. 
On a casual Saturday evening, a group of people forms a tidy line down Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley’s bustling food corridor. It’s not an uncommon scene, considering they’re waiting outside Berkeley institution Cheese Board Pizzeria, but there’s nothing ordinary about visiting the shop a year into the pandemic. 
Gone are the days of stepping foot inside the pizzeria — that’s the most obvious difference. The restaurant hasn’t resumed indoor dining despite Alameda County moving into the orange tier of California’s reopening roadmap. But there are some other changes that have been going on behind the scenes that are less noticeable to the public. 
 The Cheese Board and its pizzeria briefly closed from March to June 2020. There were many reasons for the lengthy closure, among them a worry over staff with underlying health issues, as well as concern for longtime collective members over the age of 60. There were more than 70 members across the collective at its start, but that number has since dropped to around 60 as a portion of its worker-owners are in the process of leaving or have left to find work elsewhere. The pandemic reduced the number of available work hours, causing issues for some members. 
A line of customers forms outside the Cheese Board Pizzeria at 1512 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley on May 1, 2021. 
“I think a lot of people have felt the strain and the pressure of not having [the same] hours,” said Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan, worker-owner of The Cheese Board Collective. “Other people have looked for other jobs to accommodate fewer hours.”
Ambri Pukhraj, another worker-owner at the collective, adds that the co-op feels “bareboned” at the moment but that it’s working to revamp its workflow. One of the difficulties has come from production. Because the goods produced at the businesses are labor-intensive, The Cheese Board and Cheese Board Pizzeria have adjusted their production volume to make things more manageable, such as with their famous pizza.
“The pizza process is someone making the pizza dough then pizza balls, spinning, baking, cutting and serving. All the prep that goes into making that pizza is a lot of work. It’s really physical work. We’re physically exhausted by the end of our shift,” Vichit-Vadakan said.
The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 
“We don’t have the staffing to bring the full array of products, specifically at the bakery,” Pukhraj added.
The co-op has had to find ways to fill the roles left behind, but it’s not planning on hiring quite yet because they lack the bandwidth to bring on new talent and properly train them at this time. 
One of the biggest reasons: Training often takes six months at both businesses.
“Any time you train someone at the job it takes away from your efficiency,” Vichit-Vadakan said. “We want to feel stable and then move forward with new people.”
The award-winning pizzeria side of the collective also saw a shift in operations: Lunch service at the pizzeria is no longer offered, and they’ve even nixed the popular individual pizza slices.
Customers dine on the city parklet just outside The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, on May 1, 2021. 
“We only do wholes and halves for hot pizza at dinner time. The reason we’re not doing slices is it’s just a lot more handling, wrapping them, and we’re not doing plates anymore. We’re only doing pizza boxes and we’re working with limited staffing capacity. We’re doing what is the most efficient,” Pukhraj said. “We still do slivers with our pizza, which is one slice cut into two.”
Initially, customers were instructed to place pizza orders online for pickup, but Pukhraj says the model didn’t last long and it was quickly scrapped altogether.  
“It was so much admin work keeping track of everything that we abandoned [online orders]. Then we started saying, ‘All right, just come up and buy things,’ and that worked better for us. There were a few different iterations of figuring stuff out how to navigate this,” Pukhraj said. 
Since reopening for takeout last summer, customer interaction happens only at the front door where orders are placed or at the pick-up window a few feet away. Both areas have mounted plastic barriers that let customers peek inside the pizzeria’s former dining space.
A customer places an order through a window at The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, on May 1, 2021. 
Musicians haven’t been invited to play at the pizzeria either. Although some bands have shown up outside Cheese Board’s doors to play music, the collective itself hasn’t yet hired anyone to officially perform for customers. They’re still brainstorming ways to safely integrate bands back into the space. The collective has famously been made up of not just bakers, but also artists and musicians; there was even a band formed of Cheese Board members called the Cheese Board Clerks.  
“Live music … was sort of our thing,” Pukhraj said. “We are hoping to spend the next month or so figuring that out and come up with how to do it safely, or whether we will go back to how we used to conduct business. That’s the question on our minds. I think it’ll be great to have music. Maybe we could have [the bands] outside the pizzeria, but we haven’t decided yet.”
Pukhraj shares that she is grateful the pizzeria is still operating, especially as other businesses across the Bay Area have shuttered, though she misses many aspects of what it was like before the pandemic. Among them is simply greeting and interacting with her numerous colleagues.
The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 
The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 
The Cheese Board Pizzeria, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. 
“When I came into work every day, I almost always came a little early and to say hi to everyone,” Pukhraj recalls of pre-pandemic times. “I would go say hi to the pizzeria folks and then I’d go to the bakery and make myself a coffee. I miss that so much because sometimes I don’t see someone at all because they have the exact opposite schedule as I do. … It’s sort of strange that a lot of us get our socialization at work within our [own] pod.” 
The collective had implemented work pods, which recently ended, that grouped staffers into mini teams as one way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — in addition to other measures taken, like temperature checks and other sanitary practices, throughout the workspace. 
Pukhraj says she and her team are taking things one step at a time, but something that’s made her feel more at ease is the fact that the majority of her team has been vaccinated, which means the future of working together as a whole could be that much closer.  
Cheese Board Pizzeria is at 1512 Shattuck Ave. and The Cheese Board is located at 1504 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley.
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Susana Guerrero is a reporter for SFGATE covering the Bay Area’s food scene. She received an M.A. in journalism from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and earned a B.A. in English from UC Berkeley. She’s a Bay Area native. Email her at Susana.Guerrero@sfgate.com

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