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  • Diana Brandt

Keifer Madness

You'll find this article in the March 2017 Issue of the Arizona Foodie Magazine. Want a subscription, so that you'll be the first to get the next issue? Go here: Arizona Foodie Magazine Subscription

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Written by Diana Brandt

Photography by Constance Higley

Keifer is outside on his phone as I walk towards Counter Intuitve, his hair slicked back, his arms covered in colorful tattoos. He looks towards me and smiles as he ends the phone call. Old Town Scottsdale is quiet during our early afternoon meeting. We walk into Counter Intuitive and I notice an artist transforming the back wall into a giant yellow canary wearing a gas mask. The thick spray paint fumes linger inside the small bar space. I sit on a bar stool across from Keifer. He’s had plenty of interviews recently and he’s no stranger to headlines these past few months, but I can tell he’s unsure of what to expect from our conversation. He’s named best bartender and best mixologist in Arizona, and I’m giving him an award for the shortest amount of time to become an operating partner. That’s correct, at only 26 and with about five years of experience under his belt, Keifer has managed to go from bar-back to an official operating partner of Counter Intuitive and UnderTow. He looks polished and fits the part well. One might think it was an easy path for this talented bartender, but I’ve learned the deeper story. His path’s been riddled with highs and lows.

“Those dark places you hit when you’re working in the restaurant industry happen because there is so much of yourself that you’re giving out at all times.” His expression is stern and his words direct. I can cut his passion with a knife. “You’re constantly providing experiences for others. It becomes so easy to let yourself get lost in that shuffle. To the point where outside of work you become this shell of who you truly are.” Keifer shares how drinking has created struggles for him and how watching others overcome the same challenges has helped him deal with his own demons. “There’s a lot of people in the bar community that are preaching not to drink and partake in certain things. I’ve kind of gone through it a few times, where I’ve had highs and lows with it.” His biggest inspiration is Nectaly Mendoza of the prestigious Herbs & Rye. He tells me how he watches Mendoza and has followed along with his story of sobriety and how it’s helped him so much through his tough times. “This industry will take everything from you if you let it and it’s scary,” he says with a somber tone. “I feel like Counter Intuitive helped me get out of that slump. The pace that we’ve gone and the pace that Jason makes me keep, keeps me driven and focused, to the point where I can’t let alcohol take everything from me.” Keifer’s journey started when a local Apple Bees fired him, but instead of using this as an excuse, it opened the door to his path as a bartender. He needed to do something different than the chain restaurants. He was better than that, but where to start? He googled places in Scottsdale and first up in his search, Cowboy Ciao. It seemed like the perfect fit, he was from Winslow, and this could be a cowboy scene he could relate to. “At the time, I was working at an Amazon warehouse,” he says, angst in his voice. “I was so burnt out.” One evening at work while he was sorting the endless boxes, he got a call from Chris, the bar manager at Cowboy Ciao. He didn’t get the job but instead received an offer to work at their sister restaurant, Kazimierz. “I got off that phone call and walked right out of Amazon.” Keifer laughed. “I was so over it.” Kazimierz had its own challenges and quickly became a double-edged sword. “Working at that establishment was one of my personal times where I was going through a lot of partying. I was drinking a lot, and it was taking everything from me - because I let it. Drinking is almost encouraged, and everything is always a party, all the time.”

Keifer began to spiral out of control. Chris, his boss, noticed his struggle and pulled him out. Giving him a change of scenery at Isabella’s Kitchen in North Scottsdale, but it wasn’t enough. He needed to step away from the bar business entirely. “I moved to Ohio. I was out of the bar business for four months. I was like, this is not what I want to do, I can’t do this anymore.” He worked a desk job that made him miserable. His passion was restaurants, and particularly the bar scene. He felt compelled to return to it. A few months later he was back in Phoenix at Kazimierz and helping run the cocktail program at Cowboy Ciao. His internal struggle continued, but he kept it in check. “There have been plenty of ups and downs. It’s constant. If you’re in the restaurant industry, there’s always those moments that I feel like we all rely on drinking as a crutch.” Despite his struggles, his hard work and dedication got noticed, and an offer presented itself. It seemed simple, to help Jason Asher and their crew start Counter Intuitive, but ended up being a tremendous opportunity. “This past year has been my most focused. The support and that family have helped me to be able to get where I am today.” Even though initially he started off as a bar-back, Keifer quickly became a manager and was given the task to help launch UnderTow. Keifer revealed he had to make some hard choices to clean up his act. He tells me that not everyone has been supportive of his choices. His expression saddens. “There are people that have slowly removed themselves as I’ve made changes. I started hanging around people that I wanted to be more like, and the other nonsupportive people have taken care of themselves from there.”

The desire to better himself and push forward forced him to make some difficult decisions like limit his drinking. When he didn’t drink, he immediately noticed a difference in his performance at work, than when he came in hungover. “For me, in the past six months, it has been a big transition from not being out very much and taking care of myself. When I start doing that, during service, the interaction with people doesn’t feel so forced. When I’m hungover, I get this weird anxiety, like what did I do last night? Do I need to apologize to anybody? When you start being able to compare and contrast those nights, you wonder why am I doing this anymore?” He pauses for a moment, hanging on to his thoughts. “It’s tough because I feel so young in this industry and I feel like everyone else got to party their asses off, and I didn’t. But at the same time, if you want to be someone that sets themselves apart from the herd, there are certain steps you have to take.” His tone changes to gratitude as he speaks about his mentor, who is now his close friend, and the person who helped him find success. Jason Asher has given Keifer something worth more than money, his time. “Having Jason as a mentor, everything has to be dialed in. If it weren’t for him and working here, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.” He recalls fond memories of his time working at Crudo with another mentor and friend. “I worked at Crudo for a better part of the year, and Micah Olson became a mentor and one of my best friends. We’d sit out on the patio after closing and talk about life and our goals. These were the guys that helped pave the way, and they lent an ear to me, and that means a lot.” I ask him to give me his thoughts on the Phoenix food scene and where he sees himself in the future. “I have no intention of leaving Phoenix, and we’re in this really cool process of creating a cool drinking city. I want to stay here and help harvest that.” He gives me a sincere grin. “Essentially, someday, I hope that I’m able to be a mentor to people, in the same way, that Jason has been for me.”

Counter Intuitive 7133 E Stetson Dr #4, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

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