Chris and Jocelyn McKeown sit in their Agave restaurant in downtown Lewes sipping their morning coffee during a recent summer morning. It’s one of the few times the restaurant is quiet.
Just a few hours later, servers rush to and from tables with fresh bowls of guacamole, salsa and queso or carefully carry one of the restaurant’s famous margaritas. In the kitchen, the staff is hard at work trying to keep up with orders.
Agave opened 11 years ago in a 1,200-square-foot space between Habersham Peddler Interiors and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory on Second Street. After its most recent expansion – its third – the restaurant now commands 6,500 square feet, the whole building, and a second-floor loft for people waiting for a table or those out for a few appetizers and drinks.
“It’s been 11.5 very long years,” said Chris.
Chris’ work ethic is likely part of the reason the restaurant has become so popular. On any given summer night, the wait for a table exceeds two hours, yet many customers won’t be deterred.
Agave has built its reputation through word of mouth. So much so that it was recently recognized by website Big 7 Travel as No. 8 on its list of Top 50 Best Places for Mexican Food in America.
According to the website, the list was created by a readers’ poll and a panel of food and drink experts. They also used online reviews, media coverage and notable blogs in rating each restaurant.
Chris and Jocelyn said they had no idea Agave was among the finalists.
While it’s nice to be recognized, Chris said, he doesn’t care too much about accolades.
His focus is on the restaurant, and opening Agave’s second location on Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach next spring.
Planned for the vacant lot next to Summer House, the new location will be twice the size of the original – 225 seats spread over two floors with a kitchen on each level. He hopes to open the doors in March or April.
“We’re excited to be added to the already awesome list of restaurants in Rehoboth and to be part of the Rehoboth family,” he said.
The Agave story begins back when Chris started working in restaurants at 14 years old.
“I looked up to Matt DiSabatino. I’ve never told him this, but he was like my role model,” Chris said of the owner of Striper Bites, Half Full and Kindle.
Fast forward a few years and Chris had chosen to take a semester off from college and spend time in Colorado.
“My mom called me and said Habersham’s and the candy store had burned down,” Chris remembered.
Knowing he had always dreamed about opening a restaurant, his mom asked if he was ready to give it a shot if the owners of Habersham were willing to downsize.
“I said yes, thinking it was never going to happen,” Chris said. “She called me back a day later. I packed my stuff up within the week and drove all the way back home.”
Now that he had the space, he had to figure out what to put in it. He took a cooking class in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which he said gave him more than enough knowledge to get started.
“It was a crash course in Mexican cuisine and culture,” he said. “You do breakfast, lunch and dinner, and between each meal you go out into the market and pick all your meats and veggies and take some tours and stuff. I came back with a huge book of recipes and ideas.”
Chris worked with his mother to design and build the restaurant, and Agave opened about a year later.
Now that he had the food taken care of, it was time to focus on drinks. That’s where Jocelyn entered the picture.
“My mother kept trying to get me to hire Jocelyn,” Chris said. “I knew tequila, and I knew I liked to drink, but I wasn’t into the cocktail scene.”
Jocelyn was hired two months after Agave opened and quickly made an impact.
“She made the drinks way better than they were,” Chris said. “She came along and spruced up the whole menu little by little, and she got into my head.”
The two started dating and eventually were married.
“It was a very cliche relationship,” Jocelyn said. “But here we are.”
To ensure Agave’s drinks are always of the highest quality, Jocelyn said she focuses on consistency and precision. It starts with fresh ingredients.
“Squeeze a lime and let it sit for 15 minutes. Then squeeze a fresh lime and taste them,” she said. “It’s so different. It really stands out in a drink.”
Pairing the right tequila with the ingredients is also key, she said.
“I make a full drink minus the tequila, taste it and then pair a tequila that matches it,” she said.
Agave has more than 70 tequilas from which to choose.
The signature house margarita has evolved through the years. For a long time, the tequila was Patron Citronge, but recently they switched to Dano’s, a newcomer to tequila.
“For us, it’s about finding the perfect fit,” Jocelyn said. “A lot of times it’s not the cheapest.”
The same can be said about the restaurant. During its most recent renovation, the reopening date was pushed back because the project went over budget. Chris and Jocelyn added tasks onto the project they felt would add to the Agave experience, like wood ceilings.
“That’s not cheap, but we wanted it,” Jocelyn said. “We took all the wood to our house and stained it because it’s what we wanted.”
They are taking that mindset to the new Rehoboth Beach restaurant, and they are working hard to hit their target opening next spring.
“It’s just like when you move into a new house,” Jocelyn said. “You’re putting silverware and cutlery in a new place. We’re all doing the same job, but we’re doing it in a completely different space, and that is the most time-consuming thing.”
The menu will be similar to Lewes, but new items will be added. Chris expects to roll out some of the new items this fall in Lewes so they’re not foreign to his staff when they open in Rehoboth.
Chris and Jocelyn have aspirations to branch out beyond Rehoboth, but they likely will choose a different concept. They’re tight-lipped about what that might be, but it could be a future chapter of their story.
Agave is open daily at 11 a.m. For more information, call 302-645-1232.