Yavonne Sarber of Agave & Rye: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me - Medium.com

December 30, 2022

An interview with Chef Vicky Colas

In leaving the restaurant industry in 2001, I thought what I wanted was to delve solely into interior design but quickly found that the food industry was pulling me back. The time I spent with my mentor Chef Hartmut Handke was encouraging and inspiring. He was a constant every day and always strived for excellence. Beyond that, he truly cared about what he was serving his guests. And we wanted to recreate that for ourselves and for others.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Agave & Rye’s menu is rooted in classic French technique. That includes your “mother sauces”, how you treat your proteins, enlisting proper cuts. Everything you can appreciate in the menus found in fine dining settings has always driven me and what we put into each taco at Agave & Rye.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

One of my funniest stories would have to be from the time I was holding a pre-shift meeting, reviewing course corrections and lessons-learned from a challenging shift the night before. In the middle of my review with our team, my hair brushed over a lit candle. As flames rushed up the back of my head, staff members had to pat out the fire… I’m certain they laughed about that for a while!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

When we first started in the restaurant industry, we didn’t yet know what we didn’t know. A lot of new restaurateurs are in the same boat, where you’re doing everything you can to get your food and environment right, all while realizing it’s hard to run a proper restaurant, even with those elements in place.

We got to a point a few years into our journey when we realized we knew enough to see what we didn’t know — we had fewer blind spots. It has taken a lot of hard work, but once you figure out the formula for yourself — the formula that spells success for your restaurant, it’s easy to grow and move forward. The challenge then becomes pivoting when you need to.

Our team embraces our story and the story behind Agave & Rye. In fact, it’s one we talk about at the opening of each store. When we operated our first restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, our intentions were always pure. We thought we were giving employees the tools they needed, but in reality, we weren’t. Part of giving them the right tools is the capital that’s needed to invest in the right tools so they can effectively do the job in front of them. When we fell down, we essentially had to start over and do a lot of self-growth. We closed our doors in Columbus and left the city with very little — really just the beginning concept of what is today Agave & Rye. We just knew we wanted to get back to the basics of what we loved: taking care of our employees.

The story has naturally, and almost magically, unfolded from that point. Just a few months into operating our first Agave & Rye location, we were approached by someone who wanted to help us grow the business. All of our growth to date has stemmed from our belief that we put our employees first and the restaurants second. Today, we’re proud to let people know we’ve been self-funded since our fourth location, and we’re a debt-free company. Our employees embrace the heart behind Agave & Rye, as well. They work hard with the focus of bettering one another’s lives.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

First, you have to think about what makes you say, “oh my goodness, I have to have that”. Consider the dishes that make you crave them. Secondly, you have to pay attention to current trends, keeping up on what’s happening in your own neighborhood and in the rest of the world. From there, you have to consider ways to elevate the dish and make it better.

For example, our Birria has evolved as a dish into something fuller, cheesier and richer than when it was first introduced. That evolution happened by listening to customers. It’s important to us that we frequently consider how to make our food taste better for guests.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

My ‘perfect meal’ is attached to my own childhood. My grandma was from Germany, and every Christmas she would bake roast and hand rolled spaetzle. Every Christmas, the roast would go on the flat top, then into the oven. We’ve made her recipes for our own family for years. It’s such a satisfying feeling when you can taste the love in the food you’re eating, and that goes back to the food we make at Agave & Rye. It’s something you can attach to emotionally.

The importance of emotionally connecting to the food on our menu was a major deciding factor in hiring our executive chef. Chef Rob first worked with us in Columbus, so we were familiar with his profound love for food. His personal connection to food is demonstrated by each of the dishes he creates. Beyond his strong skill set, we knew we wanted to work with him because of his character, his love for family and his love for his food..

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

Because I have a creative mind, being an interior designer, I love to create things in my mind. I’ll reimagine and recreate a room in my mind until it’s done. And I approach food the same way, testing and trying and imagining new recipes until they’re perfect. Now, opening multiple new restaurants each year, I have endless opportunities to create and recreate by virtue of the work that’s ahead of us. Every part of Agave & Rye engages guests’ five senses, between the restaurant’s environment to the food to the music and everything in between.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

We’re in the development stages of Papi Jocho’s, our restaurant concept that offers authentic Mexican street food, franchising and licensing opportunities for our employees. We’re also deep into a third restaurant concept that caters to a specific niche of guests who may not want to be ‘wined and dined’ in a stuffy environment but still want to enjoy the luxury of the food often served in that type of environment. We want to bring a little Southern rock and tattoos to steak.

What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

There’s so much advice to share with fellow restaurateurs. Firstly, before you invest a penny, ensure you have the proper long term plan for your business. Don’t wait for the P&L statement at the end of the month. Especially as a ‘mom and pop’ restaurant, you have to diligently account for every dollar and know the true numbers to be profitable. Following the structure of your business plan, think about your people. Consider what types of employees you want to attract, as well as how you’ll continue to coach and develop them.

Once you’ve considered your people, then comes time to develop your concept. Your concept should serve your community, not indulge in your own wants for the restaurant.

If you’re already in the restaurant industry, know that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself or pivot. If you’re struggling, systematically pick out your biggest challenge and fix it. Then repeat. That could mean reconsidering your menu, your culture, your staff, or that the concept isn’t being well received by your particular community.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
  1. Know your “why”: Why are you operating a restaurant? Before you start, it’s extremely valuable to consider: What if everything goes right? What do you expect in the end? What’s your prize?
  2. Consider culture: Make sure you’re hiring and developing like-minded people. Your business — no matter what it is — is your people. Birds of a feather flock together. People need to embody what you are, so you can move forward together.
  3. Take your finances seriously: You have to understand the numbers. Especially as a ‘mom and pop’, you have to know what percentage of your budget should be going to each aspect of your business.
  4. Understand government policies: Know everything from taxes to labor laws. There’s no room for forgiveness in the government, so do your due diligence and know what you’re responsible for as an employer.
  5. Know that it’s hard, but you have to persevere: In today’s age, there’s so much information available at your fingertips. Take advantage of that and continue reading to educate yourself. Knowledge is power. Keep searching and learn to crave the feeling of success you get when you learn something new or solve a problem.
  6. As important as it is to develop your business skills, it’s just as important that you develop your personal skills. Never stop growing as a human being.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

For me, it’s a tie between The Rooster (our taco with scratch-made mac and cheese, Nashville hot chicken and pickle relish in double shell) and our House-Made Sea Salt Tater Tots. They were developed and recently rolled out — not many take the time to have homemade tater tots. Ours are served with Alabama White BBQ Sauce.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We get to be a part of our own movement for good every day. The actual movement is bettering the lives of anyone you can touch. Within our group, we put so much effort into bettering each other, between mentoring and coaching, as well as offering financial counseling and giving recovered addicts opportunities they wouldn’t normally have.

We’re changing the world one restaurant at a time. Our hope is that we change the way employees view working in a restaurant. Working in a restaurant is hard work and can require long hours — the addiction rate among restaurant employees is alarmingly high. We want to change that within our own industry and make work something employees look forward to spending their time doing. Agave & Rye is proud to now offer health care and can say we’re at the top of the pay scale… and it’s only going to get better.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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