Agave & Rye Rookwood
Agave & Rye

Although Agave & Rye only celebrated its third anniversary in February, it has already grown to seven units.

Next-Gen Brands: Agave & Rye Prepares for the Spotlight

During the pandemic, Yavonne Sarber and her team have been quiet about their success.

Agave & Rye

Covington, Kentucky

Units: 7

Founded: 2018

“Sometimes I feel guilty saying [we’ve performed well] because I know our brother and sister restaurants across the country haven’t had the experience that we have,” says Sarber who is both the founder and owner of the Kentucky-based concept. “We are ridiculously grateful for our success, but we still understand what’s happening to our industry across the country. And we hope that there is something that we can do about that to give a little more stability and voice to this industry, should something like this ever happen again.”

Although Agave & Rye only celebrated its third anniversary in February, it has already grown to seven units, two of which opened at the height of the pandemic. It’s slated to enter a new market—Huntsville, Alabama—mid-April and then Nashville, Tennessee, not long after that. The brand doubled from three units in 2019 to six in 2020 and is on track for a dozen this year with the goal of 24 locations by the end of 2022.

Agave & Rye

The atmosphere at Agave & Rye is relaxed and funky, with bright murals of iconic figures like Frida Kahlo—there’s even a calavera-style portrait of Marilyn Monroe. The specific artwork and decor are unique to each location, but all share the brand’s singular, eclectic style.

And while there’s no shortage of taco-centric concepts, Agave & Rye distinguishes itself with a refined approach to the humble carrier.

“We found the market was going a little bit away from fine dining, and we wanted to have the quality of that but less pretentious ... and more approachable, fun, different,” Sarber says. “We still do some fun Mexican [dishes], but we do more proper French technique in a taco; the taco’s just the vessel. I know a lot of different places might dabble in it here and there, but that’s what our Epic Taco is.”

It’s a major brand differentiator, but Sarber says, without a doubt, that Agave & Rye’s people are what truly distinguish it from competitors. She aspires to have the service level and employee engagement of brands like Chick-fil-A that consistently deliver on hospitality and the guest experience.

Agave & Rye

To that end, she’s reluctant to franchise, preferring instead to grow by promoting from within. In fact, one of Sarber’s proudest achievements is that as of January 1, the brand has been able to provide healthcare to its salaried managers and supervisors at affordable rates, with Agave & Rye contributing a significant amount toward the premiums.

“A big part of our success is culture and that takes a long time to develop. We like to grow from within,” Sarber says. “We have three Domenican employees who started with us as servers in Liberty Township, [Ohio,] with very [basic] English—which is now almost better than mine—and they’re all in management positions, and one of them is a GM. Just the growth, the mentoring, the teaching, the platform that we’ve been able to develop, I don’t see that translating well into a franchise situation.”