Yavonne Sarber and her EPIC Brands team broke from a meeting at their Son of a Butcher Steakhouse. They walked over to flagship concept Agave & Rye, located in the same Liberty Center development in Ohio. On the table were cowboy hats, menus, and drawn-up agreements. The latter of which made the executive team pause. “I said, ‘you’re now ownership of this brand-new barbecue concept,’ and it took them a while,” Sarber recalls. “It makes me cry a little bit.”
The notion of Sarber and her husband, Wade, developing a new concept isn’t a novel one. EPIC Brands began with Agave & Rye in February 2018 and since spread to SOB, a high-end, yet accessible steakhouse concept, and Trashy Dawg, a comfort food chicken and boozy concept with a fast-casual model.
But the inception of “Cowboy Sally’s” offered Sarber a chance to break the mold further. The Agave & Rye at Liberty was the brand’s fourth store (there are now 16) and the highest performing of the group. The SOB there is the top-volume restaurant in the EPIC portfolio.
The spot McK’s BBQ vacated led the mall developer to explore plans to repurpose for apartments. So whatever tenant wanted to move in was looking at a two-year window and uncertainty after.
Naturally, given the success of EPIC Brands’ nearby concepts, they came to Sarber. “They said, ‘what would it take to get you in there?’” she says.
The deal essentially allowed Sarber to open without paying rent until the initial money was put back into whatever the company spent. Then, EPIC Brands would pay a percentage of rent for the duration of two years.
The end result, Sarber says, left her thinking about something she and Wade talked about throughout their careers. EPIC Brands has always designed its core values around employee care. It contributes to healthcare, offers PTO, health programs, and 401(k) options. One of Sarber’s go-tos when asked about her success is, “your restaurant becomes better when the people in them become better people.”
Eleven people in the company’s corporate arm, which it calls “The Beehive,” gathered around for this latest announcement. They sat in front of a fresh barbecue brand Sarber designed to be eclectic, authentic, and approachable (as all her concepts are), but also a vision of something more lasting.
The unique and somewhat low-risk nature of the lease opened the door. “Obviously, you don’t ever want anything to fail, but there’s really no skin in the game left beyond the two years if it wasn’t a success,” Sarber says.
And so, EPIC Brands introduced Cowboy Sally’s as a restaurant partly owned by its own employees. Sarber split 33 percent ownership aside and gave it to those 11 corporate workers. They don’t work in the brand (Sarber wants them to focus on EPIC as a whole). They received a credit to dine at Cowboy Sally’s each month and they now hold tangible assets in its success. And if a corporate employee leaves the company, assuming they’re still in good standing, they’ll remain part owners of Cowboy Sally’s regardless of where they go.
Sarber says the group, once the news set in, unsurprisingly, was elated. “That was part of Wayne and I’s dream,” she says. “There’s a couple of reasons. The first is, we wanted to follow what our dream was and to give opportunities to our employees. We’re not doing this to build our own legacy; we’re doing this to help others build their own legacy.”
So what were they getting into? Sarber’s Agave & Rye is best described as a taco and cocktail joint that “dives into a carnival of flavors.”
A feature in an upcoming menu launch, The Big Thumper, includes Peppercorn Kangaroo, Mac N Cheese, Beignets, Roasted Corn, Sweet & Spicy, Bacon Crumble, Green Onion, Habanero, Maple Syrup, and “Queso Love Cushion.”
Barbecue, she admits, isn’t really a cuisine you want to reinvent the playbook like tacos. Especially since she put “Authentic Texas BBQ” in the brand’s tagline.
Sarber says they’ve dabbled in barbecue before but never “legit barbecue.”
“We could do a smoked wing, or we could do different barbecue sauces, but never the big, authentic items,” she says. “When you put the word ‘authentic’ in front of anything, you’re going to have 1,000 people tell you why it’s not. And everybody’s got their own idea of what barbecue should be.”
Wade has a background in engineering. In some respects, barbecue is engineering down to its elements. It’s a temperature and rendering game that has a window where things go wrong and a just as small of one where it all goes south. The rub, the smoke, the duration, the humidity, etc., all jigsaw an equation that’s made barbecue as difficult to scale as any category in foodservice. That consistency, attention to detail, and regional fandom lends to roadside and local spots holding share market-to-market across America.
An EPIC employee with some chops in barbecue went back and forth with Sarber on the menu. She mocked it up as she usually does, and things were cut, added, sampled, and put in front of more people, until the “Hive members fell in love with it,” she says.
The menu has adjusted since its December 13 launch. But the current offerings center on brisket, ribs, pulled pork, smoked sausage, chicken, and there’s even smoked tofu “burnt ends.”
The rest of the lineup is Sarber’s typical melding of classics alongside surprises, such as cheesy eggs rolls and sweety and spicy bacon Texas rice balls. Then “Cheap Strong Drinks,” like an $8 Ole Smoky Peach Tea Whiskey Slushee, which are just as they sound.
Sarber also wanted to bust the traditional aura of barbecue. There’s nightly karaoke and she has Bear Robotics’ roaming helpers assisting servers on the floor. “I was in there … and I noticed such an array of people, all ages, all colors, all walks of life, and it’s just, when you can do that same thing Agave & Rye does, it’s just such a great thing,” Sarber says.
The front of the store opens up with garage doors and will allow guest to walk about with drinks handy. The patio sits about 40 and there will be live music during the spring and summer.
Along the way, something else happened. Sarber says mall management approached her and said they’re rethinking tearing down this side of the center. “They were like, ‘we were going to do that to put energy on this side, but this is what we were looking for,’” she says.
So Cowboy Sally’s might live on beyond its two years. It could also move. Additionally, Sarber adds, she’s fielded inquiries about scaling it to different developments. In other words, the 11 employees who own 33 percent of Cowboy Sally’s might soon have a multi-concept on their hands. “It’s just a wonderful opportunity that we were given and we’re grateful for it, and we’re excited to be able to continue doing this for them,” Sarber says.