Discover Sonoma chef-cheese maker's secret to longtime list of big-name customers
How many warehouse floors have you seen embedded with glitter?
If you visit Sheana Davis at the Epicurean Connection, that’s exactly what you’ll see. And there’s a lot of it.
Davis is as fun as her taste in flooring, but don’t be fooled. The Sonoma native, who has been running her cheese-making business since 1992, also is a whip-smart businesswoman.
The Epicurean Connection, which brings in $250,000 in annual revenues, is all about cheese. Davis has made a name for herself in Sonoma and Napa counties as an innovative cheese maker, caterer and educator. She recently began consulting and, along with her two business partners, is now teaching cheese classes abroad.
Davis has numerous long-time clients that include, but are not limited to, Jackson Family Wines; John Ash & Co.; Stark Reality, which operates six restaurants in Sonoma County; the Fairmont Mission Inn Sonoma and Silverado Resort in Napa. Her very first client was Strauss Creamery, which continues to be “fiercely loyal,” Davis said.
That loyalty goes both ways.
“She set herself apart by doing something unique and doing it well,” said Tracey Shepos, chef de cuisine and cheese specialist at Jackson Family Wines, a client of Davis for more than 10 years. “Her flagship, Delice de la Vallee, speaks for itself. That cheese is just really good, tasty and different. I can’t think of another cheese like it.”
JFW uses Davis’s product for cheese and wine pairings, and at various functions.
“Sheana has also partnered with us at different events where she’s gone out on the road for us,” Shepos said. “She’s also represented us around the world with her cheese classes.”
Davis started making cheese in 2010, first introducing Delice de la Vallee. Today, she makes four small batch cheeses and is working on several new recipes. She sells her cheeses directly, and at restaurants and wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties.
Davis, 50, comes from a culinary family. As a young girl, she spent Fridays accompanying her grandfather, a professional chef, to the Sonoma Grange, where he would cook hearty meals for farmers and ranchers. By fourth grade, Davis was carving meat and canning vegetables.
In the early 80s, while still in high school, she apprenticed under M.F.K. Fisher, a renowned American food writer and a founder of the Napa Valley Wine Library.
Davis cooked for Fisher’s guests, not knowing who she was cooking for.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have stayed at that job for a much longer period of time,” she said, noting that the people Fisher hosted included James Beard, Julia Child, Alice Waters and John Ash.
Davis wrapped up high school at 17, then went straight to Santa Rosa Junior College on a full scholarship from Exchange Bank. She studied culinary arts and economics.
“I completed my program in two years,” she said. “I was grateful for the scholarship because it came with everything, from my Sonoma County bus pass to my culinary supplies and knives.”
In 1988, after graduating SRJC, Davis traveled to New Orleans for a six-week internship, then returned to Sonoma and started catering. Davis had branded and trademarked the Epicurean Connection as her business name while in college, but officially launched it in 1992 as a marketing firm. And she continued catering, still a big part of her business today.
In 2005, the Epicurean Connection became a cheese shop, operating from a 420-square-foot space in Boyes Hot Springs, a section of the Sonoma Valley. By 2010, the business had outgrown its space, so Davis relocated her shop to downtown Sonoma, where she sold handcrafted cheeses, sandwiches, salads, wine and beer - paired with live music.
In 2015, Davis decided to get out of retail and shuttered the café, shifting her focus to her three pillars: cheese production, catering and cheese education.
Davis has had to relocate her business three times since 2015 because each building was sold. Earlier this year, Davis signed a 15-year lease and moved the Epicurean Connection to a 2,000-square foot space at 19670 8th St. East in Sonoma. The space is large enough that she can hold her cheese-making classes on-site, rather than at the Sonoma Community Center, which she will continue to use for her catering business because it has a commercial kitchen. She also wants to continue to support the center; Davis routinely supports numerous other entities and people, and has been described as being successful and humble.
Davis has five people working part time at the Epicurean Connection. All are independent contractors, and make no less than $30 per hour, Davis said.
Ig Vella - the late Sonoma businessman, cheesemaker and owner of Vella Cheese Company - was Davis’s mentor for many years, up until his death in 2011. To this day, he has the biggest impact on her as an entrepreneur, she said.
“He really, really pushed hard on economic stability,” she said. “And he was way ahead of his time on living wages.”
Over the next 15 years, Davis said she plans to keep learning and growing, and evolving her business. In the immediate future, she plans to teach more of her cheese education classes abroad, beef up her consulting services and, of course, keep innovating cheese.
“I think the key to (Sheana’s) success is producing consistently great products and new ones,” said Tom Schmidt, executive chef at John Ash & Co., located at Vintners Inn. He has worked with Davis for a decade. “My favorite (cheese) now is her LUCY, goat camembert. It reminds me of the goat camembert I’d get from the Dordogne, France.”