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January 17, 2020
For a listing of previous Retail Watch stories, please see our Retail Watch Archive.

The Epicurean Connection settles into new space in Sonoma, Calif.
Business offers education, cheesemaking and catering

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By Kate Sander

SONOMA, Calif. — Sheana Davis, owner of The Epicurean Connection, is a proud foodie, coming from a family of foodies even before foodie was a word.

Owner of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, California, Davis has been immersed in food from a young age, first assisting her grandfather, a professional chef, and then apprenticing under M.F.K. Fisher, a food writer and founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library, while she was still in high school.

It was only natural, then, that Davis would study culinary arts in college and soon after start The Epicurean Connection in 1992 as a marketing firm.

In the almost 30 years since she launched The Epicurean Connection, the business has taken on a few different forms, evolving from consulting to cheese retailer to educator to producer — and often a mix of all of them — to meet the demands of a changing marketplace. Constant through it all, though, has been Davis’ appreciation of all things cheese and her enthusiastic support for the artisan and farmstead cheese movement.

Earlier this year, Davis secured a 15-year lease in the Sonoma Industrial Parkand moved The Epicurean Connection to a 2,000-square-foot space that is large enough that she can hold cheesemaking classes on site as well as cater events. The new space is allowing her to further hone in on three of her cheese-related loves: education, production and catering.

• Cheesemaking education

With the new location settled, Davis is enthusiastically immersing herself in educating all manner of people about cheese, ranging from the cheese novice to expert chef.

Davis can talk all day about cheese pairings, but where her expertise really comes alive is in teaching people how to make their own cheese. Her desire is to break down perceived barriers to cheesemaking, making it accessible, easy and fun with hands-on classes that teach people how to craft a fresh, warm ricotta cheese that is ready to serve and enjoy within 90 minutes.

Davis has taken her cheese education classes all over the country and she earlier this year attained her dream of teaching internationally when she traveled to Dubai to teach classes tasting, making, cutting and wrapping cheese.


“This smaller route works for me. And people are excited to get their hands on the guest producer cheeses.”

Sheana Davis
THE EPICUREAN CONNECTION


Closer to home, she partners with resorts, wineries and others to teach a signature recipe she has developed using milk, cream, vinegar and salt.

“People love it,” she says, noting it’s a recipe accessible for everyone from the novice cheesemaker to experienced chef.

In her shop, a typical class starts with guests being welcomed with a Sonoma or Napa wine and an artisanal cheese tasting, allowing guests to explore different types of handcrafted cheeses prior to creating their own.

Next, Davis leads participants in the interactive process of making the cheese. Specialized classes also are available, in which Davis educates guests in creating dishes with their newly created cheese, including lasagna, parfaits and gourmet grilled cheeses.

Davis says cheesemaking classes are perfect for team building activities, company meetings, team celebrations, staff events, corporate fun and girlfriend getaway weekends.

In addition, Davis offers restaurants and retailers a class on “Weaving Waste Into Profit,” where she showcases how to trim cheese and some of the ways trim can be incorporated into money-making products such as mac and cheese and grilled cheese.

• Handcrafted specialty cheese

After making cheese, participants at workshops at The Epicurean Connection’s Sonoma location can visit the cheese shop, which is only open limited hours. There, they can buy some of Davis’ own creations.

Beyond being a cheese educator, Davis is a cheesemaker. Utilizing the resources of Belfiore Cheese, Berkeley, California, she makes two cheeses: Delice de La Vallee, an award-winning blend of fresh triple cream cow and fresh goat milk with a sweet essence and creamy delicate sensation, and Creme de Fromage, a cream top Fromage Blanc, a blend of Fromage Blanc and Creme Fraiche. She makes about 1,500 pounds of cheese a month and sells her cheese at her classes, in her shop and to chefs.


“I believe in paying above a living wage. We have a solid team. And there’s brand identity in having my same sous chef at every event we cater.”

Sheana Davis
THE EPICUREAN CONNECTION


In addition, Davis also collaborates with other artisan cheesemakers. One such collaboration between Briar Rose Creamery, Dundee, Oregon, and The Epicurean Connection resulted in Layla, a Guernsey cow’s milk crottin, dusted with fennel pollen. Another collaboration has been with Tennessee-based Blackberry Farm, which resulted in Mycophilia, a name that describes a person with an appreciation for mushrooms. For the cheese, three varieties of mushrooms — Black Trumpet, Candy Cap and Shiitake — are ground to a fine powder and mixed together to be infused in the cheese. The surface ripened sheep’s milk cheese is handmade at Blackberry Farm.

These cheeses are special because they combine Davis’ recipes with the terroir of the regions where they are produced. They also provide small artisan cheesemakers with a guaranteed customer, Davis says, noting that in addition to her own shop she also has 24 wholesale accounts for her cheeses.

“This smaller route works for me,” she says. “And people are excited to get their hands on the guest producer cheeses.”

• Catering to a specialty market

The Epicurean Connection, which includes Davis’ own cheeses as well as artisan cheeses from others, is only open to the public one Saturday a month. The rest of her sales come from special events.

Already knowing the ins, outs and inherent difficulties of operating a cheese shop having that done before, Davis decided it was time to “build a different template” with her business.

At her new location, she has decided to go with a more exclusive model, doing a cheese shop pop up once a month to generate excitement for The Epicurean Connection as a special destination.

Her first cheese shop pop up in November had more than 300 guests in four hours, she says. To build further synergies, Davis now is working with other local businesses in the Sonoma Industrial Park and letting them know what Saturdays she plans to be open. Others are starting to join the fun as well, opening their businesses at the same time and bringing more traffic to the business park, she says.

In addition, Davis says the Epicurean Connection is hosting about five events a week where she also opens the shop for exclusive shopping. For example, Davis says she recently catered a luncheon for 24 women and enjoyed strong sales after the event where the guests purchased cheeses as well as ingredients for cheesemaking.

Davis says she works hard to carry unique cheeses in her shop and orders conservatively so there isn’t waste. She also partners with a local chef who buys cheese from her in 50-pound increments knowing that the cheese that The Epicurean Connection carries is unique and can’t readily be found elsewhere.

Davis maintains the business with the support of her husband, wine educator Ben Sessions, who is co-owner of company and who runs the catering and classes when Davis is traveling. They also have five long-term, part-time employees, who each have other jobs and talents they bring to the business. For example, James Fanucchi is a cheesemaker as well as a freelance photographer and does all of the photo work for The Epicurean Connection.

The team also is completely able to cater events while Davis travels to do cheese education events on site or provide consulting services, such as recipe creation, for cheesemakers.

“I believe in paying above a living wage,” Davis says, proudly noting two of her employees have been with her for 14 and 24 years. “We have a solid team. And there’s brand identity in having my same sous chef at every event we cater.”

With the business settled at its new location, Davis also is planning on relaunching the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference in a scaled down format at her new location. The event, which Davis started in the early 2000s, highlights artisan cow, sheep and goat cheese producers as well as wines, brews and guest chefs. The event tentatively is planned for February 2021.

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