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By Kate Volkman
When Charles Kung took over the 24th Street Cheese Company in February 1986, he knew very little about cheese. His teenage years in Argentina had given him some background in Western tastes, but his Chinese roots were no help at all, he says. "Living in Argentina was the first time I had contact with Western food--the ham, the cheese, the wine."
So, how did he become the proprietor of Noe Valley's "perfectly aged" cheese shop?
Just after his birth in 1950, Kung's parents moved their family from mainland China to Taiwan, where his father served in the Nationalist Air Force. In 1964, they moved again--this time to Buenos Aires. "One of my mother's childhood friends lived in Argentina in the late '50s," Kung explains. "When she came back to Taiwan in the early '60s, she told my mother, 'Argentina is like a new world. You can have a fresh start and make money easily.'"
It wasn't so easy at first. The family opened a Chinese restaurant with some partners. Kung and his brother attended the local Argentine high school where they learned to speak Spanish; his sister went to the American school and improved her English. They all worked in the restaurant in their spare time.
One day, a Chinese fisherman walked into the restaurant and happened to tell Kung's mother that he needed a better vendor for his food supplies for his fishing boat. "My mother realized, we can get into this business," recalls Kung. That's when their success began.
A Mother with Foresight
Their first San Francisco business opportunity came in 1973. Kung's sister Mary was a student at San Francisco State University and was waiting tables at Andy's Doughnuts on Castro Street when the building went up for sale. Kung's mother was on the next plane from Argentina with money in her hand.
Over the years, Kung's mother steadily purchased more real estate in and around Noe Valley. The family currently owns a home in Diamond Heights, a building on the corner of Carl and Cole streets in Cole Valley that's the home of Crepes on Cole, the Mikeytom grocery building at Church and Day streets, the building that's home to Ladybug Ladybug on 24th and Sanchez, and of course, the building that's home to the 24th Street Cheese Company, at 3893 24th Street near Sanchez Street.
Two men, whose names are unknown to Kung, opened the 24th Street Cheese Company under the name The Cheese Company about 30 years ago. It started in the storefront now operated by bp+eyewear, and then moved across the street to its current location soon thereafter. After a couple of years, the original owners sold the store to Joan Anderson, who ran it for about five years. In the early '80s, Kung's family bought the property and leased the shop to Anderson.
When the owner left abruptly in 1984, the Kungs faced a decision. "The people who were working here told my parents, 'You can continue this cheese store.' [But] there was very little here--no cheese, just the empty counter," Kung recalls. "Of course, my mother told them, 'We don't know how to run a cheese store. We can run a Chinese restaurant, but not a cheese store.'"
At the time, Kung was living in Argentina, helping a friend run his grocery store. After finishing his degree at the University of Houston, Kung worked as manager for his family's Chinese restaurant New Hunan, which was in the space now occupied by Cybelle's Pizza at 24th and Church streets.
He had gone back to Buenos Aires because he didn't have a green card and was awaiting a visa so he could return to the United States as a legal immigrant. That's when he got the call from his mother that upon his arrival, she hoped he would take over the cheese store.
When Kung and his new wife, Hsueh Wei, arrived in 1986, they moved into the apartment above the shop. While he ran the business downstairs, his wife took care of their two daughters upstairs. Joanna, 20, and Laura, 18, are now both in college on the East Coast.
In his first days as a cheese shop owner, Kung dove into research. "The kinds of things we sell here--bread, raviolis, wine--I knew about them because of living in Argentina. But the cheese, I didn't know anything. I was only familiar with Parmesan, mozzarella, and provolone--that's it. But here we have several hundred different kinds--all different types from all over--Switzerland, Italy, France, especially France. So I started to read lots of cheese books."
The text Kung relies on the most to this day is Cheese: The Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best, by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. "This is our Bible," he says.
Kung also learned by watching and listening. "When I first arrived, we had three or four people working here on weekends. So I just washed the knives, I did the wrapping. For about two weeks I watched them--how they talked with customers, how they explained about different kinds of cheese. I kept my eyes and ears open....
"When the sales rep came in, from my prior experience as a manager, I knew to ask them, 'What do we usually buy from you?' Plus, I had seen what sold, and what didn't sell. And then I could differentiate between the cheeses that are more perishable--the fresh cheese, and the more aged cheese that you don't have to worry about that much."
More Than 300 Cheeses
Twenty-one years later, Kung has become an expert on all 300 cheeses his shop carries, down to the minute details of each cheese's age, rind, taste, smell, and color. "Now I can just look at a cheese and know if it's fresh or not fresh. I don't even have to taste it. With the fresh wash-rind cheese from France, you have to smell it. When we get the delivery, you have to check all of them and make sure they're not too old. You have to have a good nose." That's not to say he doesn't keep on tasting. "I trust my own palate," he says. "I know what a good cheese should taste like."
Kung selects cheddar from England, sheep's milk cheeses from Vermont, Spain, and Corsica, aged gouda from Holland, and brie and camembert from France. Prices range from $11.95 to $40 per pound.
"I've carried different cheeses as the people who live in Noe Valley have changed over the past 20 years," he says. "The people moving in today can afford more high-end really good cheese than people who lived here a long time ago. It was a working-class neighborhood in the mid-'70s. Now it's totally different. Now it's an upscale neighborhood. Many of the cheeses I carry now I wouldn't dare to carry 15 years ago. But now I can carry pretty much the best cheese in the whole world."
Customer Taste Tests
Kung and his employees Maria Biehn, Susan Holtslander, and Ellen Herlihy regularly share their knowledge with customers and offer tastes to help them determine which cheeses to purchase. Customer Jeff Critchfield appreciates their expertise. "It's great to know we can stop by and count on Charles and his staff to recommend a variety of cheeses perfectly suited to any occasion," says Critchfield. "He's opened our eyes and noses and taste buds, to a delicious array of cheeses like Saint Agur, Epoisses de Bourgne, and Livarot. Yum!"
However, the cheese shop wasn't always so applauded. Current and former customers whispered mild complaints about the less than friendly nature of Kung's staff gone by. Customer Amy Iacopi remarks, "I had heard rave reviews about the shop upon moving into the neighborhood. As a cheese novice, I was disappointed on my first visit, because the staff was less than excited to help me. A few months later, I tried again and I'm glad I did. A warm woman gave me a 20-minute cheese tutorial."
Kung acknowledges their disappointments. He says the closest he ever came to going out of business was several years ago. "We kind of struggled. Maybe at that time I had the wrong employees. When they're rude to customers, customers aren't going to come back. But now I have really good people working for me. This is such a small community, like a small town. You have to be good, because if you're not, everyone knows, and fast."
The 24th Street Cheese Company's best customers are Noe Valley residents, says Kung. "We also get lots of people from other neighborhoods. They always tell us, 'Why don't you have a cheese store in the Marina?' But we get good support from the locals. Our regular customers shop here once a week, usually on their way to or from the Farmers' Market."
Several customers scoot through the door minutes before the 7 o'clock close on a Friday night. Herlihy leans over the counter and hands taste after taste to first-time customer Rebecca Stevens, as Kung wraps cheeses for storage overnight.
Stevens settles on a double-crème gouda, triple-crème brie, and sopersata salami. She was inspired to come in, she says, by a tip from some friends visiting from Chicago. "They came home with some really amazing cheese, and I asked, 'Where did you get that? Certainly not Bell Market.' This is the place. It's better than the one in Cole Valley."
Herlihy flips the sign from Open to Closed, and Kung holds the door as his customers make their way past him into the cool night air. Then he turns and walks through his rustic cheese shop and up the back stairs to his home, where his wife is waiting for him.