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Newark Life

A Newark natural

Sep 28, 2017 02:23PM ● By J. Chambless

Sasha Aber of the Home Grown Café has been at the forefront of Delaware restaurateurs since she first opened the Main Street hotspot in 2000.

By Pam George
Staff Writer

Sasha Aber stands out in a crowd, and it’s not just because she’s statuesque. Nor is it because she effortlessly bucks the norm. Her idea of a point-to-point chapeau is a hat with pheasant feathers pointing to the sky.

No matter what she’s wearing, Aber emits a natural charisma that starts with her broad smile. Her world, as seen through her Facebook page, is one where fairy woods, angels and sprites might really exist.

“She’s very special,” said Vance Funk, former mayor of the city of Newark, who first met her when she was 12 years old.

But don’t let this free spirit fool you. She’s also a businesswoman with an entrepreneurial streak. No sooner did she receive her University of Delaware diploma in 1998 than she opened a retail business on Main Street. In 2000, she and then-husband Eric Aber opened Home Grown Café. She now owns and operates the restaurant on her own.

“Sasha's keen eye for trends in this industry will always make her one step ahead of the next guy,” said Robert Lhulier, a longtime friend and a chef. Funk would agree. Aber was a pioneer on Newark’s restaurant scene long before there was a boom, he said.

Sasha Blythe Temko Aber was born in a Baltimore hospital, but in many respects, she’s a Newark native through and through. She was just a baby when her parents, Vicki and Robert, decided to move from Pylesville, Md., to Delaware. Her father sold insurance, and her mother, who had a master’s degree in early childhood education, worked for Parents as Teachers, which helps parents recognize developmental benchmarks for their children. She also volunteered for CONTACT Delaware, a crisis help line.

Aber is the eldest of three children. These apples did not fall from the tree. Her brother, who now lives in New Hampshire, is involved in politics and education; and her sister, who is in California, is involved in healthy eating and a natural lifestyle.

Because the family’s Newark house backed to the woods, Aber spent hours playing there. Her mother was a ceramic artist, and Aber showed early promise. Her father set up a workbench near his own basement studio so she could play with shapes and textures, which she combined to make jewelry, metalwork and clothing. When she was 13, a metalsmith hired her to be an assistant.

At Newark High School, where she took photography, she “definitely dressed differently than everybody else,” she said. “I’ve been a little brighter, a little more colorful. I definitely was in the hippie crowd.”

When she was 16, she was an art director for a summer YMCA camp, where she also managed counselors. That year, she also met Eric Aber, a Sanford School student, during a Jewish youth group outing. They remained together while she studied apparel design at the University of Delaware and married on June 7, 1998, a week after she graduated. It was a big year. In November, she opened her boutique, Home Grown.

Aber was young but she was no stranger to selling merchandise. Since the age of 18, she and Eric had been selling her clothing and juggling sticks at festivals and other events. She also sold her clothes through a beach vendor.

Originally, the couple wanted to open a restaurant as well as a store. He’d been working in the hospitality business since he was 16. She’d worked at Jam’n & Java, where she’d watched the original owner carefully research West Coast coffee shops and source the best products before opening. “It was interesting to see the detail that he poured into that business,” she recalled.

As teens, they’d bemoaned Main Street’s lack of healthy options. (She was vegetarian at that time.) But landlords did not want to take a risk on the twenty-something entrepreneurs. “Thank God they didn’t because we learned that restaurants are a lot of work,” she said.

A small retail business was a different story, and one landlord took a chance on Aber, whose wares included items she made herself. Evidently, he was impressed. When one of his storefronts became available across the street, he rented it as a restaurant to the Abers. Home Grown Café opened in March 2000. “I told Eric that I would help him for two weeks,” she said. “It’s been a long two weeks.”

Home Grown Café's eclectic decor is a stunning complement to its ever-changing menu of funky, kicked-up dishes, such as oyster toast.

 Home Grown Café started as a 28-seat restaurant with an open kitchen and counter service. A deck was added in 2001. To serve alcohol, Home Grown needed more seats to meet the city’s requirements, and more seats meant going full service. Home Grown expanded into adjoining spaces, an evolution that is evident as you step into the restaurant today. The series of expansions meant the demise of the retail. “I miss it. It was pretty special,” she said. “I’d still love to have another one.” The restaurant quickly snagged Aber’s attention from the store. She moved it across the street next to the restaurant in 2002 to better manage it. But, she acknowledged, it didn’t have the same vibe.

Were the owners lucky that stores opened up beside them right when they needed more space? Partially. “You put thing out to the universe and they come back to you – if you work for it,” she said. Today the restaurant has 130 seats and a full bar.

From the start, the dining room sported an eclectic décor with bold orange and purple accent walls and a logo that used a groovy '60s-style font. “[Sasha’s] beautiful view of the what is good in the world comes through when you visit,” Lhulier said. “It's whimsical, wholesome and natural.”

As the size increased, so did the hours. Home Grown started offering Sunday brunch and dinner. The couple worked 60 to 80 hours a week, which became challenging for Aber, whose mother had terminal breast cancer. After an eight-year battle with the disease, Vicki Temko died in 2007.

After the birth of Sequoia in 2008 and Lucian in 2010, Aber couldn’t work as many hours. “My focus was on my children,” she said.

The restaurant had a good management staff in place, but she wasn’t completely absent. She often came in for a task, such as a wine tasting with a distributor. Sometimes she had a child in tow. As they entered preschool, she resumed more duties at the restaurant.

When the couple separated and subsequently divorced in 2016, Aber became the sole owner of Home Grown, despite the fact that Eric Aber is a chef.

“It’s definitely my third baby, for sure,” she said about why she wanted it. “Eric had been interested in pursuing other endeavors for a while. It gave us both the opportunity to do what we wanted.” Sole ownership also lets her flex her management style.

Home Grown has always been celebrated for vegetarian options that go beyond pasta primavera. On the menu, items with a leaf beside them indicate a vegan entrée (no animal products, including dairy). A carrot notes a vegetarian option – or an item that can be made into a vegetarian dish. There are falafels, veggie burgers and tofu bahn mi sandwiches. However, you might also spot a porterhouse steak, pan-seared scallops and a burger made with brisket and short rib.

The variety ensures consistent creativity, Aber said. “It pushes the kitchen to run in all those different directions and incorporate seasonal items. We offer specials twice a week, which allows us to go off the menu,” she said. “Because everything is made from scratch, we have control over making a vegan aioli over a regular aioli, or making something without gluten. We see what our customers are eating and enjoying.”

When Home Grown first opened, its competition included Caffe Gelato, Klondike Kate’s and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. There was more retail. Over the years, many shops have given way to restaurants. “Now there are so many choices for food,” she said.

Despite working hard to maintain Home Grown’s hold on Main Street, Aber finds time to enjoy life.

“She has that rare element which so many operators strive for: balance,” Lhulier said. She pursued a yoga certification and she’s active with Newark Center for Creative Learning, where her children go to school.

She has faith in her team, which includes general manager Matt McConnell in the front of the house and Chef Andrew Thorne is in the kitchen, for running the restaurant when she’s not there. “Everyone is amazing, she said. “I don’t have to be on the floor every day. We have the same vision.”

She handles the marketing, including the social media, catering and festival concessions. “She is a tremendous supporter of the events I created as mayor,” Funk said.

Although based in Newark, Home Grown goes on the road. At the most recent Delaware Burger Battle, held at Bellevue State Park near Claymont, the restaurant served up a Maryland chickpea cake with heirloom tomatoes, a shishito pepper jam, pickled shallots, a fresh herb salad and a roasted shallot aioli on a Serpe’s Kaiser bun.

As usual, Aber was manning the booth, greeting customers and serving up food. “Sasha has participated in the Delaware Burger Battle three times, taking home a trophy in 2015,” said organizer JulieAnne Cross. “She's been helpful in other ways and is someone I can count on for a great perspective and advice.”

In the 17 years since the restaurant was born, she’s become the face of the iconic downtown restaurant. That’s fitting considering her roots run deep in Newark.

“Sasha is Home Grown,” Lhulier concluded. “She lives the Home Grown life.”

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