A strategy to grow Agave & Rye and establish a massive multi-market footprint was never really in the plan when the restaurant debuted in early 2018. The edgy, spirits-inspired bar and taco concept wasn’t supposed to be duplicated. But that all changed in a matter of months.
Everything happened quickly, Agave’s founder Yavonne Sarber says. “Soon after opening Agave, we found how magical it was, and how people really loved their experiences there,” she says. “It got busier and busier and busier and a little more profitable, and got the attention and eyes of people that wanted to join in.” Sarber initially held off and made her future investment partners wait another six months before considering their offer to expand the brand.
By then, the success of Agave was hard to ignore. Located in Covington, Kentucky, the original location offers more than 70 varieties of tequila and 90 bourbons. Although Sarber envisioned opening another, different concept in Covington, she couldn’t deny she already had a scalable model in front of her.
Fast forward to the following summer and Agave & Rye Lexington opened its doors. The new location has a cleaner look and is almost double the size of its predecessor—more than 4,000 square feet compared to Covington’s 2,500.
Technicolor artwork created by the same artists can be found in both locations. However, instead of being a cookie cutter build, the restaurant’s decor is tailored to the spaces Sarber and her team find.
“We’re now referring to Covington as our OG,” she says. “It’s special, you know, it’s in an over 100-year-old building and has a lot of history in the city with Covington. This one in Lexington is a much cleaner look. It’s very polished. You definitely know when you walk in that it’s our brand, which is super important to us. The lighting is all different, but it still has the same know-it-when-you-see-it feel.”
After the development of the second location got underway, the brand’s expansion strategy kicked off. Sarber plans on opening six new stores by the end of 2020, followed by 15 or more annually in the following years.
The chain plans on entering the Ohio market later this year. It has a unit slated for Liberty Township, Ohio, in mid-October. This new location will mirror the Lexington spot, but with a larger layout. Sarber adds the development team isn’t looking for one specific real estate box for restaurants. Everything from an urban location to a mall or even another historical building are on the table.
The restaurant’s design is also evolving to fit customer needs. Delivery and takeout was a part of the business from day one. On a typical Saturday night at the Covington location, Agave can do about 300 orders, Sarber says. However, those orders have to go through the bar, which can be difficult for customers and is an operational nightmare for employees.
At the new Lexington restaurant, there are two designated parking spots and a walk-up counter for off-premises orders. Delivery through third-party services, like UberEats, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash, is still in its infancy. Sarber wants to give the kitchen time to adjust to the flow of dine-in customers before introducing significant delivery into the operation.
Sarber’s plans for Agave’s growth currently centers around the Midwest. She wants to keep locations spaced about an hour or two from each other instead of oversaturating one specific market. Following the Ohio openings, Sarber has her eye on Nashville and Indianapolis.
“We’re pretty ambitious,” Sarber says. “And once we decide we’re doing something, we’re doing it, and we actually have [a] 100-store goal in five years.”
With 30 years of experience in the industry, Sarber has learned what does and doesn’t work. This bold target doesn’t faze her. She believes Agave is ready for its close-up.
Making the menu
Guests are greeted with a selection of gourmet specialty tacos and craft cocktails when they open the menu at Agave. Kangaroo, shrimp and grits, and truffle lobster mac and cheese are all available in Agave’s taco lineup.
Just like the decor, Agave’s food and drink selections are meant to entertain and surprise guests.
“What we’re getting from most people is that we’re so different from anything else,” Sarber says. “I think that people are looking for the unexpected. We got a little bit of an edginess to us. I think that people are just like, ‘Wow, what the heck is that? I want to explore it a little bit longer.’”
The high-end experience doesn’t come with a top-dollar price tag. A quick glance at the menu shows tacos range from $4–$11. A grilled chicken taco is $4.50 while the truffle lobster mac and cheese taco runs $11, which is quite affordable, Sarber says.
Gearing up for the opening of the second location and further growth of the brand, Sarber and her team reworked and expanded the menu. Entree bowls, salads, and empanadas were introduced last spring.
“They’re really doing well,” Sarber says. “We did that knowing that we wanted to offer a little more being in different markets. Moving forward, we are a seasonal menu. Spring, summer, fall, whatever’s in season, you’ll see a couple tacos fall off in a couple new ones come on and keep it fresh that way.”
Another change came to cocktail ingredients. Agave’s craft offerings are made with fresh, never frozen juices. Now, those juices are made in house. That little change made a huge difference in quality, Sarber says.
And as the brand expands, Sarber and her team are getting creative and customizing the menu for each location. Most of the classics will be universal across all stores, but when it comes to the selection of whiskey and tequila, Sarber is handpicking which labels will be featured in each restaurant. “In Lexington, like half of our tequilas are not in Covington and vice versa,” she says. “Same with the bourbon, so that keeps it a little different in each location.”
In Kentucky, one would assume bourbon and whiskey would outperform tequila, but that hasn’t been the case at Agave. The Covington location is in the heart of bourbon country, but the sales split is 80 percent tequila and 20 percent bourbon. More customers are excited about bourbon in the Lexington location, Sarber says. As Agave enters new markets, she’s curious to see how the sales mix and which spirit is dominant.
“In Lexington we’re starting to go a little craftier as far as it’s not just all poured margaritas,” Sarber says. “We’re getting into some specialty bourbon drinks and from market to market our bourbon and tequila list, although they will remain between like, 85 and 100 of each, the varietals will change depending on the market we’re in and what’s available.”