Epic Brands founder Yavonne Sarber champions progress on all fronts

Chefs and restaurateurs in the NextGen Casual movement are ever-evolving artists and acrobats, walking a tightrope between traditional cooking techniques perfected over centuries and progressive ideals of running a modern business. Entertaining an audience (or customer base) requires extensive forethought, and restaurant brand leaders like Yavonne Sarber aren’t afraid to think outside the box when designing a dazzling show, from restaurant decor to innovative takes on classic menu items like tacos. These NextGen-ers are setting the trends for the rest of the industry and raising the bar on what hospitality means—and the world is watching.

Yavonne Sarber has always had a talent for taking care of people, so a career in hospitality seemed a natural direction to take—but her journey to creating and scaling Agave & Rye to 16 locations, plus launching a myriad of other concepts under EPIC Brands, took an untraditional route.

From surviving a challenging upbringing eating out of food kitchens to dropping out of school and getting her first job at a restaurant, Sarber is one of those rare restaurateurs who understands from firsthand experience how difficult working in foodservice can be. That’s why Sarber seeks to make improvements and change the industry from within and set a new standard for the hospitality model of the future.

“As someone who’s been in this industry my whole life, I absolutely love it, but I see the challenges in it, the depression, the money aspect of it,” Sarber says. “Even the highest-paid people in the industry are still somewhat not having a full life or doing the things they want to do, and it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re thinking about what we can do to change it.”

After two restaurant startup attempts went south, Sarber started working on the Agave & Rye concept in October 2017, a tequila and bourbon hall with “epic” tacos that take inspiration from around the world.

“We focus on doing true French technique, so we don’t do anything frozen. Everything from scratch. The only thing that comes out of the freezer is ice cream,” Sarber says. Where else can you find something like The Crown Jewel, a French-inspired taco with lobster, truffle oil, and mac and cheese?

The idea of making food an adventure and taking you somewhere playful with every bite was etched into the blueprint for EPIC Brands, with a mission to provide elevated, chef-inspired meals and pair the experience with bourbon, tequila, and craft cocktails made from freshly squeezed juices and premium spirits.

But the initial challenge to opening was finding working capital. “That’s the case with most mom and pops,” Sarber says. “Whatever you sell the weekend before pays your payroll the next week.”

Sarber and her husband started Agave & Rye with all they had at the time—$1,200 and a knack for negotiating. After finding the perfect circa-1950s bar, Sarber worked out a monthly payment plan with the previous owner. And on February 8, 2018, the restaurant opened in Covington, Kentucky, with lines down the road.

Buzz and great reviews led to investment opportunities, which Sarber turned down at first since she didn’t plan on scaling the concept. But one interested individual persistently came in three times a week for six months, so Sarber finally agreed to a conversation.

Agave & Rye Sold 2.3 Million Tacos Last Year—about 6,400 Per Every Day The Restaurant Was Open—as Well As Nearly A Million Margaritas

Agave & Rye sold 2.3 million tacos last year—about 6,400 per every day the restaurant was open—as well as nearly a million margaritas.

“After our meeting, we understood he wasn’t interested in operations, but in being a silent financial partner to help us grow. We’re transparent about this—he bought into Agave & Rye with $300,000 for half, and he says it’s the best investment he ever had,” Sarber recalls. The investment also gave Sarber $1 million per year in revolving credit with a high interest rate, and the clock began ticking.

From upgraded equipment and POS systems to ensuring flawless books and documentation, Sarber began preparing to open a second location in Lexington, Kentucky, in July 2019, then a third in October that year in Liberty Center, Ohio. The third location, to date, is still the concept’s best-performing location. By location four, Sarber had paid back the financial investor and began self-funding every location.

And by the time the pandemic rolled around in 2020, there were seven Agave & Rye locations—but Sarber is most proud of how she never dipped below 93 percent staffed.

“Is it that there’s not enough people to work, or is there not enough people who want to work for you? You really have to ask yourself that question,” Sarber says. “If you put more emphasis on taking care of your people, it’s crazy how quickly your restaurant becomes a better restaurant, because people understand they’re valued—which seems like common sense, but it’s not common practice.”

She also prioritizes providing healthcare to salaried managers and supervisors at affordable rates, which has always been a looming issue in the restaurant world. “That’s a bigger hot topic I want to make a change in,” Sarber says.

Another source of pride for her is launching a 401k retirement plan and health and wellness programs for employees, which she hopes will become the norm in restaurants.

EPIC Brands

“Our dream and promise is to give opportunities to our team members to better their lives and better the communities we set up shop in,” she says. “Our stance is, it doesn’t matter if we’re a stepping stone for employees, or if you want to continue growth with us; we’re privileged to have so many wonderful people who have chosen to get on this bus.”

With 16 locations, Agave & Rye sold 2.3 million tacos last year, equating to about 6,400 sold per business day, to a total of 1.7 million guests. Add nearly a million margaritas to the mix, and it’s no surprise the concept also saw a 48 percent year-over-year increase in total sales from 2021 to 2022. Three more locations are slated to open by the end of the year.

“People say you’re an overnight success, but it took 30 years to be an overnight success,” Sarber says. “So many entrepreneurs view things as failures, and they’re not. The only way that it’s failure is if you keep recreating the same mistake.”

Son of a Butcher Steakhouse, Trashy Dawg, and more concepts in the works

The idea for Son of a Butcher Steakhouse (sob) was sparked by Sarber and her husband’s love for the fine dining world and steak—“But we wanted to drop the pretension,” she says. “We wanted people to come in a polo shirt and jeans if they wanted but still have wagyu and Alaskan king crab if they wanted.”

A bathtub in the front of the north Cincinnati restaurant serves as the perfect eclectic photoshoot location, and Sarber estimates SOB gets tagged in 20 different social media posts per night of customers lounging in the tub holding a glass of wine.

Launching a new concept came with a new set of learnings—and Sarber isn’t afraid to admit things started off a bit on the rocks due to not having the right leadership in place yet. But customers were gracious, and within two months, the team was consistently delivering five-star experiences, led by SOB leader of the house, Christophe Goulle.

“He’s a savant in the steakhouse world. He is magic, and he’s helped us make it everything we dreamed of,” Sarber says about Goulle.

She also learned that although Agave & Rye generally sees a 20 to 25 percent dip in sales when patio season ends each year, SOB gets busier around the holidays and hosts more Christmas events.

EPIC Brands

“We are heavy on forecasting now so we know what’s coming,” she says. “When you’re a new concept growing quickly, you don’t have data to go off. Now that we have data, it makes it much more predictable what we’re going to do year by year.”

As for the future, Sarber will open another SOB in Indianapolis in 2023, and is also preparing to launch a French patisserie called Paris Misfits, which was set to launch next to an Agave & Rye location in a Huntsville, Alabama, lifestyle mall. But the team quickly realized the space—only 1,500 square feet—could not support the necessary equipment like a hood system. Sarber shifted around her plans so Paris Misfits will debut in a location in Cincinnati, and a new concept will open in the smaller space called Trashy Dawg. (Sarber certainly knows how to have fun naming her restaurants.)

Trashy Dawg will be EPIC Brands’ first foray into counter service, serving up chicken wings, hot dogs, and other more indulgent bites like garlic Texas Toast topped with housemade mac and cheese. The menu is engineered to be profitable and play nicely with third-party delivery.

“It’s not the crazy devil most restaurants think it is with the percentages they take,” Sarber says about third-party platforms. “You just have to learn how to make it work for your concept.”

Sarber has also devised a plan to optimize their footprint by marketing certain menu items separately as virtual brands on third-party websites, like Lick My Chicken and Bussin Burgers. But she still wants to entice customers to visit the fast casual in person so they can order drinks with their meals.

“You feel as though the environment is pretty magical and inspiring, and people love coming to our locations and being brought to a playground between the food, beverages, and the team,” she adds. “You feel the team’s energy when you go in the door.”

Embracing technology and making sure Trashy Dawg controlled its prime food and labor costs were important aspects Sarber prioritized when developing the concept. A team member or two—plus four ordering kiosks—will greet people as they enter. After ordering and paying from the kiosk, orders will be ready for pickup within seven minutes, or you can choose to have an employee deliver it to your table. Delivery drivers will also have designated parking spots and easy access to get in and out of the restaurant as quickly as possible.

“Where many people think you’re taking human interaction away, we’re taking the service aspect away and concentrating on hospitality,” Sarber says. “The team members are there to actually make your stay and experience more enjoyable versus spending all the time inputting your order and cashing you out.”

Plus, customers won’t have to wait for a server to come back to their table to order another drink and can simply order another on their phone app, saving time and money.

“It helps control your labor, and the food cost is set to the consumer. It’s very approachable and affordable, but yet the ambiance is going to feel as though you’re being pampered,” she says. And the savings on the labor front will be funneled into providing higher wages for workers.

“When it comes to labor, I feel as though the more we pay our team members, the more [it says] we want them to be able to have healthy lives where they’re not having to work two jobs—but you also have to be able to support it within your cost parameters. This is set up for that,” Sarber adds.

Though franchising isn’t in the immediate future for Epic Brands concepts, Sarber says she’d be willing to take on partnership investors for Trashy Dawg, while Agave & Rye and SOB will likely always remain internally operated. She even predicts Trashy Dawg will surpass Agave & Rye fairly quickly.

“It’s difficult to reproduce Agave & Rye, whereas Trashy Dawg is simpler,” Sarber explains. “At Agave & Rye, we refuse to co-pack; everything has got to be made from scratch, and it’s very important to us, which also adds to layers. If you’re franchising and not co-packing, that’s a problem.”

Sarber is also developing a new, authentic Mexican street food concept called Papi Jochos, which will function more as a quick-serve restaurant with a two-lane drive-thru, patio, and outdoor restrooms in lieu of indoor seating. Each drive-thru lane will be housed under a 30-foot hood and feature floor-to-ceiling glass windows, so customers can watch street tacos, hot dogs, and Mexican street burgers being made.

“It will look like each is a street cart, and we’ll vent it, so customers will have an experience in the drive-thru,” she says.

But the most exciting part for Sarber is the opportunity to give back to her employees. After launching Papi Jochos and working out all the kinks, the restaurant will be licensed back to employees when they hit certain benchmarks.

“The intention is to give a legacy to our team as well, including culinary and service members, and we fund it,” she says.

“On the topic of Latinos in restaurants, I don’t think they’re represented enough in the language, and they are such a valued team member in so many restaurants, but I don’t know if their voice is heard enough,” Sarber adds.

After forming initial relationships with advocacy groups, EPIC Brands began writing employee handbooks in both English and Spanish and is actively adding Latino representation to their human resources team.

“Our team understands they get the opportunity to take care of people and create these experiences and make memories for them. How awesome is that?” Sarber says.

Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual, Special Reports