December 30, 2022
February 2023 by Nicole Duncan
In many ways, chef Rob Harrison’s winding and diverse career, ranging from fine dining and catering to hotels and country clubs, laid a sturdy foundation for his current role with Epic Brands, parent company of growing restaurant Agave & Rye, among other concepts.
As the corporate creative chef, Harrison is in charge of not only creating and refining recipes for the restaurants, he’s also in charge of systemizing those recipes and processes so they’re ready to scale. When he joined Agave & Rye in 2020, the Kentucky–based NextGen Casual had been in operation for less than two years and had four locations. Since then, it’s added another 10 units, despite the challenges imposed by CO, and has more in the pipeline.
Harrison attributes this success to the immersive experience that Agave & Rye offers its guests.
“The goal from the very beginning—before I was even here—was to create an environment where you can have mindful play and escape, to get away from reality,” Harrison says. “We can give them that time to where they forget the world around them and just enjoy what’s in front of them and their family and their friends. That’s all we strive for.”
Harrison will be the first to admit the physical space, with its location-specific, playful design, is a major contributor to the brand experience. But the other equally important factor in the equation is the food itself.
Agave & Rye doesn’t bill itself as a traditional Mexican restaurant because so many other global cuisines come into play, Harrison says. And when the concept delves into Mexican fare, it does so in a more nuanced way.
“There are so many different layers to Mexican culture and the food side—different peppers, different chilies, different regions, like Oaxaca and Chihuahua,” Harrison says. “If you go to the coastline, you’re going to get more seafood and lobster and more frito mixto [fried shrimp and calamari]. And if you go to inner [regions], you get more of the birria tacos. Birria tacos are a top-seller for us; everybody loves them.”
Another favorite rooted in Mexican tradition is the Plain Jane, which includes seasoned ground beef, aged white cheddar, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and sour cream.
But the Agave & Rye menu pulls inspiration from far and wide. Harrison offers a few Epic Tacos as examples, including The Crown Jewel, which harkens to French cuisine and features lobster, truffle oil, and mac ‘n cheese. The Empress Gi puts an Asian spin on a Mexican protein, with Mongolian carne asada, sticky rice, red chili Mongolian sauce, carrots, and shaved green onion. Over-the-top tacos dot the selection, with ingredients as obscure as peppercorn kangaroo and Flamin’ Hot Coconut Cheetos.
These playful creations are a long way from Harrison’s classical roots. Born and raised in Hawaii, he moved to Hyde Park, New York, to attend the Culinary Institute of America. “A lot of people think once you come out of school, you can be a chef,” Harrison says, “but you really have to pound the pavement, as they say.”
So, upon graduation, he did the requisite fine-dining circuit with stints in both upstate and New York City proper. From there, his career grew in multiple directions; he worked at a number of hotel properties, including La Valencia, Le Merigot, and Short Stories in Southern California. When he and his wife were ready to start a family, they moved to Ohio, where he continued to rack up a wide variety of experiences, including more fine dining, country clubs, and catering. In fact, his catering work on behalf of the Columbus-based nonprofit LifeCare Alliance, taught him how to serve a wide range of crowds and occasions.
“Our profits rolled back into the nonprofit for seniors, so it was a win-win. We did weddings, corporate events … school functions, banquets—you name it, we did it. We did anywhere from 10 people to 4,000. So I learned bulk prep there,” Harrison says.
All said and done, he stayed in the catering sector for seven years until the summer of 2020, when right at the height of Covid, a former colleague reached out; she was seeking a corporate creative chef for her fledgling yet rapidly expanding restaurant. That former colleague was Yavonne Sarber, founder and owner of Agave & Rye. The pair had worked together for three and a half years at a now defunct bistro in Columbus before Harrison joined Life-Care Alliance.
Now, in addition to creating and perfecting recipes for the original concept, Harrison is building menus for new restaurants under the Epic Brands umbrella. The portfolio ranges from a fast casual peddling hot dogs to an elevated steakhouse. The latter, Son of a Butcher (sob) Steakhouse, opened last March in a suburb of Cincinnati.
While working on such varied restaurants allows the chef to flex his culinary muscles, the pivots aren’t without their challenges.
“First off, it’s difficult. … Right now our two main concepts are Agave & Rye and SOB—totally different worlds, two totally different trainings, two totally different recipe writings,” he says. “When we have to switch gears over to SOB, it’s a whole different mindset. You’ve got to elevate the food, like what I used to do in the past in fine dining, to where it’s not pretentious and it’s still approachable.”
Harrison offers the Japanese Crab Cakes as an example. Unlike traditional Maryland crab cakes, which he says use a lot of filler like peppers, onion, and breadcrumbs, SOB’s version is 98 percent crab and seasoned with gochujang, ginger, garlic, and sriracha.
Harrison relishes the process and the creative leeway it affords him. For one, he’s drawn from his catering experience for Shindig Park, a large event space that houses SOB and can be outfitted for hors d’oeuvres, buffet dining, or plated meals with servers.
Another project that’s been keeping him busy is Trashy Dawg, which is slated to debut in Alabama the first half of the year. Epic Brands’ first foray into counter service takes hot dogs, wings, and other bites “to a whole new level, incorporating things that people have never seen before,” Harrison says.
In addition to traditional corn dogs and build-your-own options, the fast casual serves indulgent dishes like garlic Texas Toast topped with housemade mac ‘n cheese, crispy chicken tenders, and a hot dog. It will also offer wings ranging 1–5 in heat level, where the hottest requires guests to sign a waiver. “[It’s] just out-of-this world, crazy, let-your-inner-child-come-out,” he adds.
Given the constant innovation and evolution happening at Epic Brands, Harrison has continued to sharpen his skills and expand into new territory. That said, the chef does hold a dream of one day becoming a celebrity chef. After all, he’s always enjoyed doing television spots.
“One day I’d like to be on TV as a star, but I’m very happy where I am. I like bringing that creativity and that ‘wow’ factor to people when they get their taco,” he says. “It’s just really giving that love and passion to it.”