Beyond the kiosk

Israeli ex-pat finds a niche with customized apparel shop

Liav Hemo prides himself on offering same-day service for custom orders.

Liav Hemo prides himself on offering same-day service for custom orders.

Photo by Rachel Bush

Like its name implies, local business Cali Customs offers quite the selection of Golden State-themed clothing options. Among the other graphic tees and brightly colored hoodies, the California grizzly bear logo makes many featured appearances in the store's offerings. Perhaps the symbol has extra significance to owner Liav Hemo, who traveled over 7,000 miles to make California, and Chico specifically, his new home.

Originally from a small village outside Haifa, Israel, 29-year-old Hemo took notice of Chico when he visited a friend here several years ago. “I liked it. I'm from a small area and it reminded me of it; a small city that has everything you need,” he said.

After returning to the Middle East to wrap up his job, he came back to Chico six years ago to plant roots, build a business enterprise, and perfect his English, too. Using Chico Mall as a home base, he started small with kiosks, first buying Bella's makeup stand, which he still owns.

“I always knew I wanted to open a business, so I had put aside money to start it for a while,” he said.

Hemo worked many jobs over the years to save that money, including a three-year gig as a firefighter in the Israeli military, and serving as manager at a cellphone retailer. “I'd had experience as a manager, but owning a business, that was new to me,” he said.

After spotting a mall kiosk that offered custom-made T-shirts, he was inspired to open his first storefront, offering similar services. Opened in 2012, Cali Customs lives in the heart and center of Chico Mall, where Hemo offers premade and custom-designed clothes, showcasing various pop culture references, from cartoon characters to sports logos to those ever-popular Internet memes. While hoodies and T-shirts are the big sellers, Hemo says customers are welcome to bring in any item they want customized. He occasionally prints logos for businesses, such as Dutch Bros. Coffee and local restaurant Big Tuna Sushi Bistro.

While Cali Customs is known for its custom orders, Hemo prides himself on offering same-day turnaround. To make that happen, the production process stays simple; it all comes down to a couple of machines and a few sharp tools, as Hemo demonstrated by making a custom Day of the Dead T-shirt during this reporter's recent visit. After picking a design online, Hemo and employee Collin Enfield-Gawthrop sent the image through SignBlazer software, before meticulously cutting the printed stenciled image—made from vinyl paper—with an X-Acto knife. Five minutes later, after heat-pressing the skull logo onto the V-neck T-shirt, the process was done.

It's clear efficiency is part of his business, but Hemo says it's taken a few years to get into the rhythm and to build a name and clientele. When asked if he has any advice for young entrepreneurs, he was quick to offer a tip: “Just think positive. If there's a product you want to sell and you think, ‘Oh, someone's already selling that'—you can't think that way. Just stay positive.”