By Claire Harlin
The packed little cheese shop in the Flower Hill Promenade that used to be a quick stop for savory samples and cheese to-go finally let its seams bust last month and moved into a new space. The step up in size will now allow them to serve lunch, beer and wine, giving guests plenty of seating to mingle and munch.
Owner Gina Frieze said a major reason she embarked on the move is because her customers were asking when she was going to bring to Del Mar the well-attended cheese classes she holds at her flagship shop in downtown San Diego. Sure enough, the Academy of Cheese — “AOC” as she calls it — will find its place in Del Mar starting this month. There will be a kids’ cheese party on Aug. 13 at 2 p.m. at the shop, as well as a mozzarella and ricotta cheese-making course on Aug. 16 and a “Getting to Know Cheese” course on Aug. 23. There will be three to four classes each month at various times, some of which will incorporate pairing and products from other Flower Hill vendors.
Venissimo started about a decade ago as a small Mission Hills cheese shop with 50 types of cheese and it’s grown to hundreds of varieties at Frieze’s four shops in San Diego and Long Beach. The Del Mar shop was the second in the chain, opening in 2007 at the former site of Aniata Cheese Co., which specializes in importing cheese and is still a partner of Venissimo.
“This all came to be because I love cheese,” said Frieze, who did marketing for companies for more than a decade before finding her passion with cheese.
It all started on a wine tasting tour near Sacramento, where she used to reside.
“The light bulb went off and I said, ‘I want to do a cheese shop,’” she said. “I also wanted to live somewhere with perfect weather and there were no cheese shops here in San Diego.”
She spent about a year writing her business plan, which she modeled after the traditional European cheese shops that were few and far between in the Unites States at that time. Frieze’s mother is from Austria, and she remembers going to the European delis as a child.
“Every two years we would get to visit and those are such warm memories,” she said.
The opening of Frieze’s first store didn’t come without a challenge. After pitching her idea to the owner of the space she found in Mission Hills, she got turned down. Not only did the landlord think a shop selling only cheese wouldn’t survive, but he didn’t wanted to split the rather large space into two smaller units as Frieze asked.
“On top of everything, it was my very first business, and they just said ‘no,’” Frieze said. “It took six months and I was faxing them letters telling them what I could do.”
Finally, Frieze showed up with a cheese tray when the owner was on site, and he was sold on the idea.
The shop opened in 2004, and there was no looking back for Frieze.
“My first cheese order was like $2,500 and I was panicking because cheese goes bad,” she said. “I am so thankful for everyone who kept coming back.”
Much of Venissimo’s success has been its business model that stresses “heavy sampling,” Frieze said.
“Our whole thing is we want people to be able to try anything they buy,” she said. “We want it to be an adventure, like going to Europe without being in Europe.”
Each cheese available to buy is labeled with the pronunciation, animal it comes from and pairing ideas. More recently, the shop added a designation for organic and raw (as opposed to pasteurized) to each cheese option.
Since the move, the cheese boards offered at the shop have been popular, Frieze said.
“People can either mix and match the boards or let us choose,” she said.
For more information on the shop and to sign up for classes, visit www.venissimo.com.