To the outside observer, it certainly seems that Belhaven’s iconic Keifer’s Restaurant has undergone a lot of change in the last few years. They’ve moved to a new location—one that was custom-built as a restaurant rather than a renovated residential house—and they’re under new ownership for the first time in their 37-year history.
But, in actuality, almost nothing has changed about the Keifer’s experience. Customers old and new still enjoy the same menu items prepared and served by the same dedicated staff and surrounded by the same artwork and décor.
If this seems impossible, that’s because it likely would be for any other restaurant. Maintaining consistent quality and experience for over 30 years, through massive relocations and change in ownership, is no small feat. Keifer’s has accomplished it through a unique combination of organization and culture, in a way that feels quintessentially “Jackson.”
Rick Olson and Paula Coe opened Keifer’s in 1980, operating out of what current Keifer’s general manager Chip Holden called “a little shack of a house” in Belhaven. The initial reaction was, to put it lightly, unexpected.
“When Rick and Paula opened up, they didn’t know what it was gonna do.” Chip recalls. “I think it was only like four or five of them running the place. So they opened up, had a grand opening sign up for like a week, and the day they opened up they had a line up the stairs, all the way to State Street. They stayed open for like two or three weeks and had to close for two weeks to hire more people and re-vamp it.”
Much of this initial success was due to the restaurant’s originality. “Jackson didn’t know what hummus was, or gyros or falafel or cottage fries,” Holden explains. Keifer’s was also one of the very first restaurants in the Jackson area to offer outdoor seating—after a drawn-out negotiation with a reluctant city Health Department—creating what Holden describes as a “treehouse-like” atmosphere.
Jackson welcomed these new ideas with open arms, and they’ve never stopped coming back for more. Holden has worked at Keifer’s for 24 years, and says that he still serves many of the same regulars that he did in the very beginning. “I’ve got people that I waited on when they were kids, they’re married and got kids now,” Holden laughs. And while Keifer’s has a huge fan base of long-time regular customers, new faces are still appearing every day.
Holden isn’t the only one with such a longstanding connection to Keifer’s. and it’s this tight-knit community that has allowed the restaurant to maintain such consistency throughout their 37 years. Keifer’s oldest employee has been there 35 years, and their staff boasts 12 employees who have been there at least 15. In an industry with characteristically high turnover, these numbers are astonishing.
“It’s just a family. We all know each other’s wives and husbands, we know each other’s kids, we do things together, the owners have always taken care of their employees,” he explains. And it’s not just the employees who are connected in this way; regular customers are part of the family too. “It’s a lot of fun to be at the register and you’ll hear somebody yell at the cook ‘hey tom, how you doin, how’s your wife’,” Holden says.
Along with this loyal staff, Keifer’s has maintained a consistent menu over the years. “[Rick] wants to serve the same quality food,” Holden explains. “He’d rather go up on the prices than [offer] lower quality food or do portion sizes smaller. So the gyro you get today, it may cost more, but it’s the same exact size, same product, same bread, same meat, sauce, everything.” No wonder the regulars keep coming back; they can still get their favorite order, 37 years after opening day.
Even the décor at Keifer’s is both unique and consistent. When the restaurant moved to their new location in 2012, Olson worked hard to ensure the new space felt familiar, down to the littlest details. This effort is most noticeable in the gorgeous stained glass pieces that are scattered throughout the dining area’s windows. Rick’s partner, Richie, took two months off of work to create the individual panes in his workshop, and they’re now an integral part of the restaurant’s beloved atmosphere.
So what does Chip Holden see in the future for Keifer’s? For a restaurant that has seen such incredible success from day one and not slowed down over 37 years in business, that’s an easy one: “I feel like Keifer’s will be here 100 years from now. It’ll be that place that says “established in 1980” and it’ll be 130, 140 years old. I see it being here forever,” Holden answers. And on a more personal note, “It’s home.”