For nearly 40 years, Peter Kushell had a unique perch as uptown Charlotte exploded in growth.
After getting his start as a short-order cook in 1977, he was later assigned to manage the Showmars restaurant on Third Street between Church and Tryon streets. And for much of his tenure there, his work was boosted by the capable help of his wife, Kathy Kushell, who oversaw the dining area.
The Kushells worked side by side as Charlotte grew from a quiet town where nothing much happened to become a city famous for big banks and pro sports. They estimate they must have fed a good portion of those who came to live and work here.
But as 2014 slipped into memory and 2015 opened with vast new possibilities, the Kushells quietly left the restaurant they largely built and set off on an entrepreneurial adventure of their own.
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Assisted by Showmars founder and owner George Couchell, who is Peter’s distant cousin, the couple bought a 60-seat restaurant in downtown Stanley in Gaston County, where they and their four children are working to duplicate the success they enjoyed in Charlotte.
Pete’s Grill officially opened Jan. 2, adjacent to a convenience store on Main Street, but the sign out front still recently said Niko’s Grill, a throwback to the previous owner.
For the Kushells, owning a place of their own is the culmination of a dream they carried for years.
“We were out here New Years Day, just looking at it,” Kathy Kushell said last week as a steady stream of after-work diners trickled in for sandwiches and other light fare. “Just knowing that it’s yours and everything you put into it.”
A city in transition
Peter and Kathy Kushell may have fallen victim to Charlotte’s growth.
Some 37 years ago, when Peter first cooked at a restaurant called Mr. C’s, which later became Showmars, competition for uptown diners wasn’t nearly so fierce. In fact, he often found time during work to admire a stately young woman who came in most mornings for breakfast. She worked in the same building, upstairs in a bank’s call center.
“He sent a waitress over to get my name and number because he was so shy,” Kathy Kushell said, recalling that she rebuffed his initial advance.
“I said, ‘If he wants my name and number he can come out here and ask me himself,’ ” she said. “So he did. He worked up the courage to come out and talk to me a little bit.”
The two eventually married and had a son, the first of their four children. Mr. C’s became Showmars, and the Third Street location opened. Peter Kushell was appointed manager. Kathy Kushell worked varying stints alongside him, often bringing their toddler son into the restaurant strapped into a car seat.
Kathy credits her husband for coming up with many of the restaurant’s most popular menu items.
“All of them are my recipes,” Peter Kushell chimed in. “Showmars didn’t have cornbread and pork chops and all that stuff.”
When he wasn’t cooking, he was learning to manage – ordering food, working with vendors and handling payroll. He rose each workday at 3 a.m. to prepare for the 6 a.m. breakfast rush. He finished up most days after 4 p.m., then headed for their home in Huntersville.
Eventually, all four of the Kushell children worked at the Third Street restaurant – the boys in the kitchen with Dad, the girls out front waiting tables.
While time was passing, uptown Charlotte was changing. New office towers sprang up, along with residential construction. The EpiCentre came along, with a slew of new shops and restaurants. Then suddenly, where the line at the Third Street Showmars once stretched out the door, the couple said they noticed fewer customers coming in.
Couchell, the Showmars owner, said competition has put a dent in his uptown business, especially at the Third Street location, which, unlike his other uptown restaurants, is not part of a larger office complex.
In addition, Couchell said, with only a year and a half left on the Third Street lease, he’s not sure how much longer he’ll even have the location. Higher uptown real estate prices would almost certainly mean a rent increase, he said.
Faced with an uncertain future and nursing a desire to strike out on their own, the Kushells decided to make a move.
Kathy Kushell said the hardest part was saying goodbye to the many customers she viewed as family.
“I love our customers,” she said.
Peter Kushell said he wanted to make some money before he’s too old. He said he also wants something to, perhaps, leave to their children, who all followed their parents to the Stanley restaurant.
“Not millionaires,” Peter Kushell said. “Just enough for me and my wife, so we won’t have to ask our kids for anything. I deserve to have something. I’ve worked hard.”
Couchell said he was happy to help the couple find a place of their own. He said he was simply paying them back for money they invested in the Third Street Showmars.
“They’ll be really happy there,” he said. “It’s a family affair. He’s going to be happier being his own man.”
On a recent Thursday, while Peter and his sons worked the kitchen in their new location, Kathy and one of her daughters were taking orders behind the counter.
Seated across the restaurant was a party of four – all former customers at the Third Street Showmars. They had come to say hello and to congratulate the Kushells.
“We’re just tickled for them,” said Terry Price, a Duke Energy employee who said he met the couple about 15 years ago. “They have the greatest personalities. I just love them to death.”