From Refugee to Successful Business Owner

Pete Raxakoul on Immigration, Racism, Bicycles, and Cheese

By Rose Hanson

(ABOVE) Pete Raxakoul’s parents, aka “Mom and Dad” work at the Country Cheese located at 2101 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley

Known around the Gourmet Ghetto for owning not one, but four locations of cheese specialty stores. Peter Raxakoul the owner of Country Cheese Co. better known as Pete, is taking the East Bay by storm. After opening his fourth store in San Francisco six months ago, which now features over 112 different bottles of wine, we sat down to speak of his humble beginnings, his big break, and his struggle with racial prejudice in the food industry.

To even get an interview with him seemed like a daunting task. After speaking with him, the only way I would get the interview would be if I joined him and his friends on a bike ride. But it didn’t stop there. I would have to race and beat one of his friends up the Bay Bridge, which is a 22 mile loop from BCC. I grudgingly met up at his San Pablo store, bicycle in tow, hoping somehow to make it through the ride alive.

After meeting the riders, Greg, a man with a hipster worthy beard and a love for cycling trumped only by his love for his 3 year old daughter, and Tony, a hardcore Warriors fan who also doubles as an amazing chef, we were set to ride. We started off first towards Point Isabel Shoreline, taking a few turns here and there to rack up more mileage. Greg and Pete set off leading the pack on their carbon fiber bicycles as Tony and I tried to bike without falling over or hitting anything. The wind was brutal, but so were the hills. As we biked alongside the Golden Gate Fields, past the parking lot that was the freeway at rush hour, and onto the path that would lead us to the bridge, my nerves set in. With fifteen miles down, Pete stopped us at the base of the bridge. I was to race Tony to the top. Whoever got there first would win. With a short countdown, we were off.

Pete and Greg speeding past me. I cranked the pedals of my bike that hadn’t seen the light of day since high school. My calves burned, and the wind was pushing me around every which way. I looked behind me only to see Tony wasn’t far behind. After what felt like hours, I saw none other that Greg and Pete. Shoes off, laying against the end gate, guzzling water and joking around. Exhausted, sweaty, and out of breath, I got my interview.

How was growing up in Laos?

I was born in the capital of Laos in 1970. But I had to leave my country when I was seven years old. It was right after the Vietnam War, but there was still war happening in Laos. My father was an officer in the military, and after the war was over he had to escape to Thailand so he wouldn’t be prosecuted. Many officers and their families were executed by the communists. So my dad was a refugee in Thailand for safety, and he soon sent word for us to come and escape to meet him there. At the time my mom was pregnant and was already caring for four kids so my mom had to pay people to smuggle us across the river. A lot of people don’t make it. Most of the time they pay money to these people to help them cross the border, and it’s those people who kill them. They are basically traitors. We were very lucky. Once we got there we were arrested. This way we could get our paperwork processed as refugees. This was the only way would have an identity. We stayed in jail for a month just waiting for our papers. After that, we were moved to another camp to see what country we would go to. These people in refugee camps would starve just waiting to leave the camp. Even I starved. You aren’t allowed to get a job. They feed you broth with leftover vegetables, and rice. That’s all we ate. Some people who had family on the outside could get money through mail. If you didn’t have that connection you were basically screwed. We stayed in the place that they would keep cattle. No room, no nothing. We slept on pallets and tried to set up tents until our paperwork was finalized. A lot of people resort to killing in the camps. You are starving and in survival mode there is nothing else.

How old were you when you came to the US?

I was nine years old.

Was that a total culture shock for you?

Yes, of course. I didn’t speak a lick of English, I knew nothing about this country. In the camps I would learn french since everyone was going there. But the reason we even came to America was because we found someone to sponsor us to go. When we got here all we had was 35 dollars and there were seven of us. Luckily, we met other Laos people who helped us and connected us to a Lutheran church. That’s what saved us. The church taught us how to read and write in English. They came and fed us, clothed us. Everyday this woman Anne Ernesto, who was our sponsor, would come and make us lunches, taught my mom how to can food, took us to the hospital, she was so caring. I miss her a lot. Learning English in the school system was difficult for me. They never really tested to make sure I was actually understanding anything. Even if I failed, I would go to the next grade up. I took ESL classes too, but because I had to repeat seventh grade I ended up learning a lot. If it wasn’t for my parents and the support of the church I wouldn’t be who I am today, and where I am today.

After high school did you go straight to the military?

Yes, straight to the military. I got an offer to play soccer for San Francisco State, I was pretty good at it, I was all American, and I got a lot of letters from schools and professional teams wanting me to tryout. But it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I went to the military to get an education and learn. Another big part of it was my dad was in the military, I grew up seeing my dad in that iconic uniform. He was my hero, I wanted to be like my dad. But when I joined, I didn’t really like it. Too many rules, the chain of command, it didn’t fit with me. So I opted out to the army reserve for 10 years, and after that I was done. I wanted to do something else with my life.

How did you get started in this business?

My mom used to work for this company in 1983. She worked here as a cashier and stocker 7 years prior to us owning it. I worked here when I was 16 as a summer job in the Berkeley and the San Francisco locations. When the owners of the company died, their family decided to sell. My mom told me about it and I was interested. But there were other people interested in buying it, including the manager at the time. The family gave me a chance to work for 3 months, just to see if I liked it. They never actually taught me anything. They just let me go. They never told me where to buy anything or where to get anything. But I was an honest and hard worker, I came into work everyday and did everything the best that I could. After the 3 months of me working, they decided to sell it to me. I don’t know why they chose me. Maybe they thought I deserved a break.  I wanted this store so bad. I took out a loan, my parents helped me pay for it. All that mattered was getting that store. They had a book and it was filled with all the products in the store and exactly which vendors they came from. I was so scared. I was only 20 years old, and it was a lot of responsibility. What to order, how much to order, no one told me what to do. I had never even done the ordering before. So I followed that book for a while until I got comfortable. Ordering things is just something you have to learn on the fly.You make mistakes, you order too much, you don’t order enough but overtime it becomes easier.

Over the course of your time owning the stores have you ever faced racial prejudice?

Even today after 26 years I still face racial prejudice! At the beginning, when I was a young man still learning how to work the business, people actually approach you, accuse you of not knowing anything about the product. In one incident, a person came up to my face and said, “can I speak to someone who is white who knows about the cheese?” and all I could do was comply and refer them to the previous owners. But as the man went to ask them about the cheese, the owner said “that guy over there?” pointing to me, “He knows more about cheese than I do.” And as the owner said that, the man just left the store because he assumed an Asian person wouldn’t know anything about cheese. And I still get that stereotype, even today and it’s hard. Asian people don’t typically eat cheese I guess, but now a days everyone eats it no matter what race you are.

I noticed that each store has something that makes it unique. The Hopkins store has coffee, and the new San Francisco store has wine and so on, what made you pursue these things in addition to cheese?

I bought that business because of personal interest. But, I never wanted to own a store in San Francisco, I have three stores within 3 miles of each other. I never had to commute. It helps to have the stores so close especially when someone calls in sick, if one store needs something right away I can just drop it in 5 minutes, it’s easy to help each other out. When my kids were growing up here, it was easy to get them from school, if there was an emergency it was easy to be there. But when I got the fourth store, for the specific reason of wine since it pairs with cheese so easily, it was taking on a lot. A lot of stress and a lot of inconvenience. But it was new. I’m not a wine drinker, I don’t know a lot about wine. So I had to understand, and drink more wine. It’s apart of that business. One thing I have always wanted to do was have a wine bar. Have a place where you serve wine, with cheese, pate, dried fruit, all of that. So the San Francisco store was kind of like a test run for me. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different wines. I was able to appreciate the differences in bold alcoholic California wines versus medium fruity French wines.

Is there any closing thoughts or advice you would give to someone who wants to become a business owner?

I grew up wanting to give people a chance since I have been helped so much as a child. This job is fun, I never have to work at a desk, everything is always changing. A business is comprised of how you can be successful? How hard are you willing work? How badly do you want to provide for your family? This job is hard don’t get me wrong. Employees come and go, you have to trust yourself and respect your store to be successful. Just know not to give up. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to require long hours, no vacations for a few years. Business requires effort. All I can say is hold on, and never give up. Never ever give up. 26 years later and I’m still pushing. But trust me, it’s all worth it.

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