Feature

She’s So Unusual

  • Photos by Tessa Berg
By
From the March 2014 edition

Restaurateur Yavonne Sarber, with her baroque, Stevie Nicks aesthetic, has style to spare. Does she have the business substance and the restaurant chops to back up the look? Loyal diners who flock to De-Novo, Manifesto, Chez du Bon and, soon, Oliver’s put their money on it. Meet the woman who’s slapping her ornamented signature on restaurants all over Downtown.

Thick, wet snow is falling in Lynn Alley between High and Pearl streets Downtown. Despite the harsh mid-January weather, the surrounding streets are crowded during the lunchtime bustle, filled with people grabbing a bite to eat or catching the bus. Not in the alley. The desolate space is disturbed only by a massive trash container positioned in front of a tucked-away building that, until a few days ago, was Thai Lotus, an Asian-fusion carry-out joint. Rusted metal clangs as bits of broken tile and slabs of drywall crusted with decades-old wallpaper are chucked inside.

Yavonne Sarber turns a corner into the alley, a tiered black tulle skirt swirling at her feet. She trudges through the slush, her impractical dress absorbing the soggy goop. The restaurateur—this is someone who named her company FAB Dining Group—isn’t about to let wintry conditions or a demolition zone cramp her style. She’s visiting the site of her latest concept, Oliver’s, an artisan-burgers-and-bourbon joint she plans to open in April. It will be the fourth Downtown restaurant she has opened in about two years.

French-leaning market and restaurant Chez du Bon had been open in the Fifth Third building at State and High barely two months when Yavonne acquired the property for Oliver’s. These businesses join new-American bistro De-Novo, on High Street across from Columbus Commons, and scotch bar Manifesto, also in the Fifth Third building. Each place is different in concept and cuisine, but all are linked by their quirky designs. Tree branches hang above the bar in De-Novo. Famous quotations are hand-painted on the walls at Manifesto, where the rooms are heavy with wood and granite and stuffed with leather booths and armchairs. Paris meets New Orleans’ French Quarter at Chez du Bon, a colorful, glitzy mesh of wrought iron and crystal. For an opening party, she hired models to play human mannequins at the entrance. For Yavonne, less is never more.

Her skirt snags on the edge of the door as she enters the partially gutted room that will become Oliver’s. She crouches to rip it free. “I’m not made for construction,” she says, spinning on her heels and continuing inside. And really, she isn’t.

Once you’ve met Yavonne, you won’t soon forget her. Though she is small in stature—barely taller than 5 feet, with slim hands and a sweet, girlish voice—her look is big, big, big. Blond hair extensions cascade in curls over her shoulders and down her back. Strands are dyed cranberry red or brown, and one section is pulled back in tiny braids. She is often dressed entirely in black, preferring flowing skirts and dresses, blazers and cleavage-baring tops. Except for the chunky rings on her fingers, she doesn’t wear much jewelry. Sometimes, she’ll wrap a scarf around her neck for a pop of color. Whether sitting in her office above Manifesto, greeting and seating diners or surveying a raw space layered with dirt and dust, she never blends in. You’ll know it’s her at first glance.

The same can be said of her design aesthetic. She calls it “urban chic” and is fully aware that it’s over the top. She pulls out all the stops when shopping for decor, spending about $30,000 on chandeliers alone in each of her three restaurants. Even her office is grandiose, with metallic pewter walls and crystal accents. An antique birdcage lamp exudes a soft light over her desk, which rests on a cream fur rug. An overstuffed deep-purple sofa is nestled against a wall behind a glass coffee table that’s stacked with crystal rocks glasses and a decanter of an enticing-looking spirit. A brilliant chandelier hangs low from the center of the ceiling. All that’s missing is a throne, which wouldn’t be out of place. The room is gothic but charming—much like its occupant.

Yavonne, 41, was born in Columbus and has spent most of her life here, though she lived for a while in Florida and North Carolina. She met husband Wade when she was 15 and the two were working at a McDonald’s in Thomasville, North Carolina, his hometown. Wade co-owns FAB Dining Group and runs Capital Fitness Downtown (one floor above Manifesto). He checks the registers at the restaurants each morning but spends most of his time at the gym, preferring to stay behind the scenes. He won’t even talk to reporters, solidifying Yavonne as the face of their brand. The couple married a year after they met. She studied graphic design at the University of North Carolina until they moved to Florida when Wade enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

When she was 21, they moved back to Columbus, and she began waiting tables “as a starving artist,” she says. She was by then hoping to work as an interior designer. She worked at the legendary Handke’s Cuisine, one of Columbus’ top restaurants until it closed in 2009. Yavonne didn’t know it then, but the six years she worked for esteemed chef and owner Hartmut Handke instilled in her the passion she has for the restaurant business today.

“I wouldn’t be in the industry without my time with Hartmut Handke,” she says. “He exemplified perfection the entire time I was with him.”

Handke, now retired, remembers her well. “She was more or less a go-getter,” he says, adding she was friendly and customer-oriented. He also remembers her unwillingness to conform to the dress code. Rather than wearing the required white button-down shirt, black pants and practical shoes, Yavonne opted for long black skirts and platform heels.

“I have no idea why they made the exception,” Yavonne says, laughing. “He used to call me Contessa.”

While serving at Handke’s and later at Morton’s steakhouse, she picked up work with a few local interior designers. In 2001, she quit her restaurant job and opened her interior design studio, Y Designs, in Grandview. Without formal training, she made a career from work experience and a knack for design. (As she puts it: “Either you have that talent or you don’t.”)

“When I got out of the restaurant industry, I was so happy,” she recalls. It wouldn’t be long, though, until she was back. When a designer she had once worked for went out of business, she took over that location in Worthington. What happened next was unplanned and unpredictable—naturally.

“That’s when I got my liquor license, and I turned my studio into a jazz bar,” she says.

Her only experience in the restaurant industry was working as a server. But she and Wade have always loved jazz (for her, it’s Billie Holiday and Etta James), and she saw the restaurant as an exciting business venture. Profits from a major project—a total design overhaul for a Dublin homeowner—footed the bill.

Vonn Jazz was wildly popular when it opened in 2008, despite its unassuming location in a generic strip mall on Dublin-Granville Road. It was a cozy space with red accents, glowing chandeliers, even a king-size bed, a popular spot for listeners to lounge for the night. Nightly live jazz drew impressive crowds and, by the end of the first year, lines formed out the door. In 2009, Yavonne moved Vonn Jazz to an 8,000-sqaure-foot space nearby, more than tripling its size.

This proved to be a mistake: Rent was too high for a place that drew crowds but didn’t make enough money. “They’d come in to drink and listen to music for hours and hours,” she says. Patrons came hungry for comfort food, but she served foie gras. Vonn Jazz closed in 2011.

“There’s a reason people go to business school [for] restaurant management. There is some logic involved, not just passion,” she says. “I didn’t understand you have to fit a concept with your menu.”

There was little time to mourn the loss. Yavonne’s attention had shifted to De-Novo. She was determined to sever any connection between the two.

“It took me a long time to separate Vonn Jazz from what I was trying to do [with De-Novo], and it was painful almost,” she says. “De-Novo is a Latin legal term, and it means a new beginning. And it was almost just like, ‘OK, I [expletive deleted] up. We are starting over.’ ”

Yavonne’s sights hadn’t always been set on Downtown. She and Wade opened De-Novo on a whim because the space, most recently Coaches Chicken, came at a price too good to ignore. She says they were oblivious to the growth on the horizon.

“We didn’t realize everything that was going to be happening in the (Columbus) Commons. We didn’t know that apartments were coming up,” she says. “We just loved the park.” Once De-Novo began drawing a crowd, Yavonne and Wade moved from Powell to a condo at Broad and High. Yavonne walks almost everywhere she goes now. “Everything is right here,” she says. Even her next business ventures—and there will be more—will be Downtown. “The reason we did the gym is because the community needed it,” she says. A similar mentality guides her other concepts; she opens the kinds of restaurants she feels the city is missing. But she doesn’t actively seek new locations, instead waiting until vacant spaces present themselves.

“We don’t come up with the concept and then find a place,” she says. “We find a place and then come up with the concept.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Oliver’s was not Yavonne’s original idea for the Lynn Alley space. Instead, she envisioned a Southern grub and jazz bar called Pink Cow. What does that even mean? She shrugs. It just sounded right, she says. But when she finally saw the building free of Thai Lotus’ furnishings and fixtures, she didn’t see Pink Cow.

“I just said, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t it.’ And it took me a minute to even figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. There, in a moment of panic, she invented Oliver’s, a throwback to the original 1960s tenant. In a departure from her other restaurants, Oliver’s won’t have any chandeliers. Instead, she’ll buy TVs for a sports-bar feel. (“Man jewelry,” she says.) Oliver’s will be adjacent to a true speakeasy, access to which will be granted only to those who know how to enter.

Opening a series of restaurants in rapid-fire succession was never Yavonne’s plan. But those who know her agree it wasn’t surprising, either. Yavonne’s brother, Rob Fabbre, says he wasn’t fazed when she asked him to help gut the space for Oliver’s so soon after Chez du Bon opened. “She’s been this way with everything,” he says. “I’d be surprised if she isn’t doing one soon after this.”

Fabbre, 33, says while Yavonne dreams the elaborate design plans for each new project, he and Wade tell her what’s realistic. “She has these big, grand ideas. We sort of bring her back down,” he says.

Handke was more impressed than surprised when he first visited each of her restaurants.

“I’ve got to give her a lot of credit for the guts she had to do all that,” he says. “She is determined to be successful, and that’s what you need to be.”

She is also fearless.

“My husband has always said that probably my biggest strength and my biggest failing is I have no fear,” she says. She dresses and designs the way she does because she likes it and it suits her—she’s had the same hairstyle since she was 22. Still, she worries about how the community receives her restaurants, obsessively reading any review or local blog she can find—but only for the caliber of the cuisine. “A lot of people do not get it,” she says of her style. “You try to please everybody, but you’re never going to.”

Someday, if things ever slow down, she’d like to go to culinary school and travel with Wade. They don’t often have time for a night on the town, but when they do, their go-to spot is refreshingly ordinary.

“El Vaquero,” she says. “I go for the margarita. We’ve been doing that for 20 years.”

She likes anonymity, she says. Even when she’s at her restaurants, people don’t always make the connection. They might recognize her, but not necessarily as the owner.

“I think more so it’s because of my appearance,” she says. “It isn’t really that usual.”