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February 26, 2024

At Customshop, a legacy gets a second chapter

Chef Andres Kaifer is fine tuning a Charlotte mainstay

by Ebony L. Morman

Longtime customers of Customshop have found the menu evolving, but in a way that stays true to its legacy. Photo by Kenty Chung

When chef Andres Kaifer first visited Customshop for dinner, the Miami native fell in love with it. Unknowingly, that visit was the start of him accomplishing his longtime goal of owning a restaurant.

He’d spent about three years in Raleigh, where he worked as Durham Hotel’s chef de cuisine and Vidrio’s executive chef. Then, Kaifer was offered a position with Mac’s Hospitality Group (a Charlotte-based restaurant group that includes Mac’s Speed Shop, Backstage Lounge, and SouthBound). Because he had a working relationship with the restaurant group’s former president, Shang Skipper, he relocated to Charlotte to serve as the group’s culinary director. Near the two-year mark, he knew it was for him to open a restaurant and the Customshop dining experience was confirmation.

“It was a perfect size for what I had envisioned my restaurant would be concept-wise,” Kaifer says. “To me, everything just made sense. The menu changed often, there was no real set concept of sorts, and you could just kind of do whatever you wanted, which is what I wanted to do. So I decided to purchase it.”

Chef Trey Wilson first opened Customshop Handcrafted Food in Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood in 2007. For more than a decade, his food and hospitality garnered continued support from locals. Kaifer’s first dining experience at Customshop ultimately led to him assuming ownership in 2022.

Since then, Kaifer’s focus has been on enhancing each aspect of the restaurant: food, operations, hospitality, and overall experience. Each day, he leverages more than 20 years of industry experience. His desire and drive for cooking was inspired by his mom’s meticulous meal planning for the family when he was a child.

“My mom was very organized and structured,” he says. “She planned out menus for the week and she would execute them to a tee. So my curiosity started from a young age.”

As a nod to mom, a variation of her flan is on Customshop’s dessert menu.

Chef Andres Kaifer at Customshop. Photo by Ryan Allen

When Kaifer became Customshop’s chef, changes followed. While the dining room is still intact, the bar underwent a renovation with the goal of improving functionality to help increase liquor sales and improve the overall cocktail program. The kitchen also underwent a full renovation with the addition of new equipment.

“One of the important pieces I liked the most about Customshop is that you can see the entire dining room from any point,” he says. “It’s more intimate and you can provide better hospitality. With a smaller staff and a smaller space, it enables you to execute at a higher level.”

Another change was the menu, which Kaifer curates using worldly influence from places like Spain, Italy, France, and Asia. He grew up eating Peruvian and Hispanic food, so that influence can also be seen on the menu. Even with global influence, however, it all starts with farmers. Even before relocating to Charlotte, Kaifer admired the state’s agriculture while visiting his twin sister in Raleigh. He frequented the plentiful farmers markets that drew his interest.

“[Farmers] make it really easy for us by providing us with good products,” he says. “For me, it’s about trying to support farmers as much as possible, using the best ingredients locally, and doing whatever I can to respect the ingredients but also make it interesting.”

To that point, the crudo section of Customshop’s menu is popular among guests. It’s fresh and always changing, but created with a constant intention: to highlight the fish using different sauces and textures. The hamachi crudo with tiger’s milk, red onion, scallion, and crispy corn and the beef tartare with preserved chillies, miso, pickled mustard seed, celery, and potato crisps are excellent examples of Kaifer’s abilities to layer flavor and texture. The restaurant also makes its popular pastas in-house; there are typically four pasta dishes on the menu.

Patrons who frequent Customshop know that the menu changes regularly. Kaifer relishes in this freedom and one of the benefits is being able to pivot and change the menu as often as possible, he says. This gives him the ability to continue to work with farmers without having to be married to a certain menu.

“If one of my farmers reaches out and tells me that they’re not going to be able to have broccolini for next week, for example,” he says, “I can pivot that menu item and tweak it to be able to continue to allow me to source locally, which is one of the most important things and it’s amazing.”

Fostering relationships with farmers has been a highlight but assuming leadership at a respected restaurant such as Customshop didn’t come without difficulties. One challenge that Kaifer had to overcome early on was getting a skeptical and tenured staff to buy into new goals and a new vision, Kaifer says. Still, he felt it was important to retain the staff.

“The most challenging thing was getting people to understand that we wanted to keep the name and the legacy of the restaurant but start a new legacy at the same time,” he says.

Being present, working side by side with staff, and listening to and receiving feedback has had its benefits. Kaifer’s staff is now fully committed and even the regulars understand his desire to add to the restaurant’s history while also forging his own path.

“Regulars have made it a point to tell me that everything we’ve done for the restaurant has improved it and they really appreciate that because they’ve been coming in for years,” he says. “Being able to give this restaurant some new light and people appreciating that is super rewarding.”

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