Western North Carolina Woman

tracy adler: café on the square
by lisa horak

Tracy Adler, owner of Café on the Square, has a very full plate. Nonetheless, she is always cooking up something new. No, we’re not talking menu items—we’re talking about life.

This busy mother of two manages one of Asheville’s most happening restaurants, is a founding member of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, and is co-chair of the upcoming Taste of Asheville Festival. Add to that a dash of notoriety—she is also one of the faces on the Burt’s Bees Healthy Treatment Line of products—and you get a glimpse of both the busyness and serendipity in Tracy’s world.

Ironically, Tracy’s background is in neither the food industry nor in modeling. She studied plastics engineering and has a degree in business. She met her husband Mitchel while she was living in Anderson, South Carolina, making plastic automotive parts.

Shortly after they moved to Asheville in 1998, Tracy and Mitchel were eating at Café on the Square when they noticed an odd coincidence. The sign outside the window literally had Mitchel’s name on it. It was a sign for the Adler Building. Mitchel suggested they buy the restaurant, and in the spring of 1999 it was theirs.

And yet it is Tracy, the plastics engineer, who manages the Café. Mitchel has assumed the role of Mr. Mom, taking care of the Adler’s two children, Elliot and Rachel, ages three and almost one. “I started doing this when Elliot was eight months old,” says Mitchel, who absolutely loves his new career. “It’s like I’ve known him for a thousand lifetimes. There’s something about a baby—especially a first baby—that heals you.”

The arrangement is a win-win situation for Tracy. Both her kids and the Café are thriving. Café on the Square won “Best of Show” in the Asheville Chamber of Commerce Culinary Showcase in 2002, and celebrities like Robert Redford and Sandra Bullock have dined there and praised the cuisine.

But for Tracy, a better indicator of the restaurant’s success is its low employee turnover rate, which she attributes to the safe, fun, challenging environment she has created. “It’s very important to me that I cultivate a welcoming, comfortable setting in which my employees want to work. We have employee contests (which include the kitchen staff - the group that often gets left out), and we focus on relationship building and flexibility. I have an open door policy and I try to offer managerial guidance that doesn’t level a person’s self-esteem,” explains Tracy, drawing from her business degree from years past.

The interaction with her staff gives Tracy her greatest job satisfaction. Indeed, her staff feels almost like a second family. One of her employees even called her--instead of his own family--from Europe at 2:00 in the morning because he’d been robbed and needed help getting home. Now that is an employee who feels comfortable with a boss!

“The greatest compliment I’ve gotten since owning this restaurant was from a part-time server who told me that he didn’t work at the Cafe for the money but because he felt good about himself every time he walked out our door at the end of the shift,” says Tracy. “He verbalized the very thing I’ve tried to create at the Cafe. What could be more successful than that?”

Tracy finds owning a restaurant so rewarding that she was one of the founding members of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, a group that bands together to collectively negotiate on food costs, health insurance, and the like. “We can’t compete with the money the chain restaurants spend on advertising, but I really want to let locals and tourists alike know that there is a food culture here. You don’t have to eat food that tastes identical regardless of where you are,” says Tracy.
To promote the best that the city has to offer, Association is holding the first Taste of Asheville festival on May 23 from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at City-County Plaza. “A lot of the independent restaurants will be selling food and there will be wine and beer from local breweries. There will be cooking demonstrations, great music, and even an area with activities for kids, like decorating cookies,” says Tracy, who is the co-chair of the
even an area with activities for kids, like decorating cookies,” says Tracy, who is the co-chair of the event.

Despite her busy days at the Café, Tracy’s creative side has recently re-emerged. But instead of car parts, this time she has created a “yum yum dish,” a four-ounce ceramic bowl that is perfect for portion control. It’s sort of the opposite of super-sizing. The idea stemmed from Tracy’s post-partum snacking. “What bothered me more than the calories was the fact that I wasn’t aware of how much I was eating. I felt guilty for showing my son this behavior, especially with childhood obesity on the rise,” says Tracy. “With the yum yum dish, it’s impossible to overeat, unless of course you keep refilling the bowl. The goal isn’t to deny yourself any foods, just to limit your in-take.” Café on the Square now features one appetizer and one dessert that you can order in the yum yum dish, which you get to take home with you.

Apparently portion control works wonders. Tall and thin with striking red hair and porcelain skin, Tracy’s natural beauty caught the attention of Roxanne Quimby, owner and president of the Raleigh-based Burt’s Bees company. “This woman came up to me at the restaurant and asked me to be on their new Healthy Treatment Line,” says Tracy. “I love their products, so I was thrilled about it. I love that they never hire “real” models, just regular people. That’s me. I’m not going to dye my hair or anything. I want to look like a wise grandma when I get older.”

She’s still got a ways to go in that department. In the meantime, with her combination of personality, creativity, and business sense, Tracy Adler clearly has the recipe for success.

Lisa Horak lives in Asheville with her husband and two daughters.


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