KENSINGTON -- Since the 1920s, residents have been accustomed to seeing the Rexall Drugs sign adorning the corner building at Arlington and Amherst avenues and a pharmacy occupying the space. Last year, Arlington Pharmacy filled its last prescription, and on Dec. 31, owner Wing Gee retired, closing the doors on the Arlington General Store for the last time.
Even before that date, word began to spread that another Berkeley fixture with the same combination of quality products and customer service was coming to Kensington. Before cobwebs could form, Country Cheese Company signed a contract and owner Shirley Ng couldn't be happier. She says it's her "dream location."
Country Cheese has been in business on Hopkins Street in Berkeley since 1970, a locally owned and operated store specializing in selling domestic and imported teas, coffee, chocolates and cheese. Owners Ng and husband Pete Raxakoul like to describe their business as an old-fashioned shop dedicated to offering customers quality and variety from around the world.
Ng has used her Berkeley store as a testing ground for the new Kensington enterprise, training her staff and herself, increasing her knowledge of her products and seeking out the top providers. Though she knew she wanted to expand, the question was where and how much capital it would require.
When Ng was approached by the owners of the Kensington property, who request to remain anonymous, her questions and concerns were answered. Within a very short time the contract was signed and Country Cheese Kensington was a done deal.
After some remodeling and inspections, the store officially opened March 21.
"So from all this happening right now, it all went boom and my dreams have come true," Ng said. "My new space is twice bigger than my Hopkins store so I feel like I'm living in a tiny little house and now I can be in a bigger house that has so much space."
Ng has definite plans for her larger space, plans that include areas that display her different products, lend themselves to customer service and provide a community gathering spot and a place to sit while waiting in line for the Post Office, another longtime fixture housed in the former drugstore originally opened by Louis Stein.
The store will feature specialty cheeses from Holland, France, Italy, Germany and Spain along with local favorites from Berkeley, Sonoma and Point Reyes. Ng prides herself with offering variety and something new and different each year.
"I surprise my customers to see what I can find, all the rare cheeses," Ng said. "They tell me they have to eat cheese and there are so many in the world, so it's fun."
Along with coffee beans from around the world, Country Cheese carries a wide selection of premium red, green, black and white teas. Ng travels to China twice a year and brings back many varieties to share with her customers. Her plan is to set up a tea-tasting counter within the store and also offer tea-tasting sessions.
Over the past few years, Ng has developed a reputation for selling chocolate, especially within her Hopkins Street store. This has brought many chocolate makers and vendors to seek her out and the variety offered proves that chocolate -- dark and milk varieties from Napa, San Francisco, Spain, Belgium, Seattle, New York and more -- all have a place within Country Cheese.
Another of Ng's favorites is gelato, and she's determined to offer Kensington residents a variety of her favorite brand, Fiorello's. "I've tasted every single flavor and they are one of the best gelatos I've ever tasted," she said. "I'm going to have them all."
The plan is to keep the Post Office in its current location within the store, both to keep the neighborhood happy and draw in customers who might spot a chocolate or cheese they'd like to try.
Customers have stopped by or left notes thanking the new owners for keeping the postal window, which was scheduled to open this week.
Three stores means a certain amount of shuffling between Ng and her husband but they have worked out a schedule that will have one of them in Kensington to offer the personal service their customers have come to expect. Some Arlington Pharmacy staff will stay on, others will shuffle between stores but Ng is also looking for more staff that will be trained to work in the store.
Though Country Cheese has been invited to open branches all over the Bay Area, the Kensington location, merely two miles from Hopkins Street, is ideal and Ng's enthusiasm for the endeavor is apparent.
"I'm very excited and can't stop talking about it," she said. "I really like the neighborhood. When I went up there I saw so many people that are my regular customers. It's what I imagine in the old days, like a little village where everybody knows each other and stay together.
Country Cheese is located in the former Arlington Drug Store at 299 Arlington Ave., Kensington. www.countrycheesecoffee.com or Shirley Ng at 510-526-1333.