Before Agave & Rye opens for lunch on Sunday, February 9th, founder Yavonne Sarber wants to make a few things clear.

First of all, this is not your run-of-the-mill taco joint. “I try to keep up with the scene and I read every comment and it was like every article had a comment like ‘oh great, another taco place,’ I’m like ‘no, that’s not who we are!” It’s a claim any business owner would want to make, but a review of their menu would dispel any doubts.

The extravagant combinations are the result of a close collaboration with Restaurant Boss Ryan Gromfin. Since 2016, Sarber and her husband have built their menu by sending ideas and drafts of recipes to Gromfin who rounds them out. While the process was a successful way to set them apart, it created some dissonance in the menu.

“We had street tacos on the menu,” Sarber explained, “so people were expecting that typical chain restaurant, which we’re not….Our street tacos were delicious but in all honesty I felt like you could go to a taco truck and get it better.” Their honesty, working in tandem with their ambition, led them to a bold conclusion: take off street tacos, clarify who they are “and be unapologetic for it.”

That sense of self is the second tidbit Sarber sought to convey. Calling back to her days as an interior designer, she hung decadent light fixtures and hired artist Poem Santiago to paint fanciful murals throughout the dining room and on the outside walls. The most prominent mural (shown above) faces the downhill slope of Baxter Avenue and reads “Save the Bees”, an homage to her husband’s familial ties to beekeeping.

A mural of hometown hero Muhammad Ali in Agave & Rye’s Louisville location

The final thing to know before chowing down is something the team has made clear in all their recent media interviews: “We tell people it literally took 25 years to be an overnight success.” Sarber notes that their quick growth – Louisville is their fourth location, with a fifth coming by the end of 2020 – has only been achieved by learning from their missteps.

When they opened a jazz and blues club in Columbus, OH in 2007, they quickly learned the importance of turning tables. “We’d have people in for five or six hours just listening to music and they’d spend on average $25 per person. That was including the tip.” Sarber also admitted there was a disconnect with their menu and the guests; the faithful audience, for example, didn’t have much interest in eating foie grais.

After their landlords sold off the property in 2011, they pivoted to a higher-end concept dubbed Genovo Bistro. The re-working of their identity found guests more comfortable with their price point. That comfort, however, was interrupted by the renaissance of downtown Columbus.

“Scaffolding was going over doors, parking became scarce,” Sarber recalled. Simply put, it became harder to get people to come in. It was a lesson that carried over to their real estate hunting and ultimately led to Louisville’s fourth-iteration status.

After their “OG” location in Covington was under control, the team intended to open a second location in Louisville. But the lack of suitable, second-generation restaurant space delayed the move. Even last year, when Sarber and her husband were in town to check out a riverfront property, they weren’t sure it was time.

“…The kitchen was upstairs and they said the bottom floor only floods every couple of years,” meaning their arcade room was incompatible with the site. It was chance that their broker did a search of properties just as the former home of Ward 426 had gone on the market.

Second, fourth, whenever, Sarber knew the city’s growing market was an inevitability for the brand. “We’re pretty optimistic about this Louisville market. It finds a reason to eat and drink and we’re so thankful for that,” she joked. F&D

Agave & Rye’s bar crew tends to guests at a soft opening