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Staying on the right side of the Trax in Ambler

"They like the quality we give them. We’re more casual dining, but we do offer service and they like the quality that we deliver."

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them. 

As a young man, Steven Waxman went to work in a variety of kitchens, doing what he called "scratching the itch" as he worked his way up as a chef. Then he went to work for his father, who owned Superior Wine & Spirits, a wine distributor. He started driving a truck, and then got into merchandising and sales.

In October 1995, Superior was sold. Eventually, Steve moved on and decided, "I had a little bit more cooking in me." After a scuttled deal for a restaurant — the former Under the Blue Moon in Chestnut Hill — his friend suggested a building at the Ambler SEPTA station. It was early 1998 when Trax opened.

How did you start?

There was really nothing here. They had a cafe and a bookstore but there was no development. We were able to turn it around and I went out with my plan and I approached a bunch of banks, and I finally was able to get a loan for like, I think it was like $150,000. My folks helped me out with another $50,000 and we had put together the first deal for $200,000. We pretty much spent all that getting the development together and we had six months of renovations. We took one wall down. We put the hood in. We bought new equipment. We set the place up and had a little bit of money when I started, but it was tight. I signed with SEPTA.  I'm happy to be the steward of the building and manage everything, Pretty much I'm part chef, part property manager, part businessman, part, part, part, part, it just keeps on going. We do it all.

Tell me about Trax at the opening.

I had done a lot of research. It wasn't called quick-serve; it was called HMR, home meal replacement. When I opened, I was really a cafe and takeout place. I had a giant quick grab-and-go refrigerator and I thought I'd do more volume, but the reality was when I opened, the train people really didn't stop and they kept going . The coffee thing was kind of a myth because McDonald's sold coffee for 59 cents. I just didn't have the volume to do that. Six months in, and two reach-in boxes, $7,000 later, that are sitting in my friend's barn ... I decided that we need to be a restaurant — just what I really didn't want to do. I really wanted a café and grab and go because I knew the perils of the business, having done my service, but people in this area demanded to be waited on.

They walked in and they sat down. They wouldn't come up to the counter, therefore that's why we made the change. It wasn't like I had a great idea. It was just like, "This is what we need to do" at the time. When I opened, I was pretty much three shifts: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We quickly burned out from that, literally.

The tables and chairs got here two months later. I had picnic benches in here. Some of my original customers still remember the picnic benches. We put together more of a dinner menu and somewhere in the first year I got rid of breakfast and we continued with lunch and dinner for 13 years. Now we're dinner only, because I'm the old guy and I can't work 15 hours every day. We're pretty much dinner now, Tuesday through Saturday from 4:30 to 9:30, but for 13 years we did a sizable lunch business and we had a totally different menu than dinner. It was all unique stuff and it was pretty successful, I just decided at some point it was time to move on.

How have tastes changed over the years?

Crab cakes is still a big seller, salmon's still a big seller, whatever fish I have is still a huge seller. We have a lot of long-term customers that can eat anywhere and they do I'll see the same people every week and that's been our core and, also, the next generation is starting to come in and that's kind of fun. I have several generations of people that I'm friends with, and of course we've lost some customers along the way, they got old and moved on to a better place.

Why do they go to you?

They like the quality we give them. We're more casual dining, but we do offer service and they like the quality that we deliver, and we've always ... We've maintained that even in the trying environment with the way prices have been. I really have still gone the other way, like I'm always looking for a better chicken, like this year I switched to Bell & Evans air-dried chicken. Why? Even though it's another $1 a pound or a $1.50 more a pound, we use it, we take the breast off and we use that as an entrée. [Chef Dewdney Reynolds] and I use the thigh as part of our barbecue. We use the chicken stock for, you know, and It's just like a better-quality item. The same with the pork products. We're using all-natural. Our bacon bellies are all-natural, no steroids, no hormones.We're trying to go that direction, maintain prices, not raise them through the roof. I'm sensitive when [entrees] are starting to get $30 plus, because we are casual and we're not offering the most ... What should I say? Plush surroundings? I mean, it's casual.

You've always been BYOB?

There's a group of BYOB people that are very cost-conscious and that's why they're here, but there's also other people that they have a wine cellar and they want to drink their Napa or their estate bottles, and that's what they'll bring in . You'll frequently see people with $100 bottles or $80 bottles.

How about the business side?

This has been a hard time the last few years. Margins are crushed, prices in the back are have gone up, energy costs definitely have cut into the margins.

You're a chef. How do you keep the front of the house engaged?

I threaten them. No! Let's see, well for the last six years I just transitioned my front of the house and it was painful. I had the same staff for six years and it really took a lot of searching to transition. I feel happy with where I'm at now.

Whom do you credit for your success?

My wife, Claire. She has been very gracious in allowing me to do whatever I want in the restaurant and she is very patient with me. She lets me do my thing here and very supportive, she's actually the one who …. I probably never would have done it without her encouragement. We've been married almost 30 years. She got tired of me bitching about other restaurants when we went out and she says, "Why don't you just open a place?" I just, I probably would have lacked the self-confidence, but she encouraged me.

Do you ever plan to retire?

Well, I'm too pretty to retire now. Now, I'm being funny, I mean, I'm 56, I mean I have another 10 or 15 years in me, maybe not all as a chef, but certainly working. My father, even after he sold the business, continued to work in a part-time basis with the Pennsylvania Wine and Spirit Association. My uncle Ron who was in the business is still working for Capitol part-time. I mean, I feel good still and I want to continue working. As for this location, I'm in negotiation now with SEPTA for the next 20 years.

Trax Restaurant and Cafe, 27 W. Butler Pike, Ambler.