Welcome to Industry Talks, where Eater shines the spotlight on Atlanta chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant owners to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their world.
Sarah Oak Kim entered the hospitality industry as a bartender at 18, and over the next 17 years, the city’s nightlight scene provided her with far more than a profession. Working in hospitality offered Oak Kim a tight-knit group of friends, co-ownership in Edgewood Avenue bar Our Bar ATL, and a platform to address significant community issues in Atlanta.
Our Bar ATL’s staff and owners met while working at the Department Store bar at the corner of Edgewood and Boulevard. They all had different jobs there, ranging from security to sound engineering. After Department Store closed in 2016, the group went into film production and continued to work together making music videos and documentaries. Our Bar ATL opened in 2020, just a month before the pandemic began. Oak Kim hired her former film production team to help run and work at the bar in various capacities.
“Working on set was high-energy and very demanding,” she says. “When we move that same mentality into a bar, for the most part [that high energy is] always the same and we know what to expect. We got to ‘test run’ and ‘perfect’ our teamwork.”
The owners and staff all contribute in different ways to the Our Bar ATL operation. Oak Kim, along with Justin DeLeon and Sung Hyong, is one of three founders. Other partners manage the bar or handle security — one partner designed Our Bar ATL’s sound system. “Each area has an expert put in place and they all work together at these various establishments or roles,” Oak Kim says. “They came together and that’s their department.”
Our Bar ATL’s core team is still extremely close. They’re all friends, and at one point all lived together. “We’ve been going on so long now it’s definitely a family vibe. A lot of the events we do are family-oriented,” Oak Kim says. That familial relationship now extends to newer employees as well as DJs and promoters with residencies at the bar.
The ethos is simple at Our Bar ATL: “our bar, our friends.” Its core tenets, local, thriving, and comfort, Oak Kim says, are central to everything they do at the bar and how it operates. This includes fostering local talent, keeping prices affordable and the atmosphere comfortable and inviting, and ensuring all employees have an opportunity to thrive at Our Bar ATL.
Oak Kim primarily handles marketing, booking, and organizing myriad events held at the bar, including Djs, live bands, karaoke, game nights, beat battles, and an interview series that ultimately got her more involved in local politics. She started bringing more awareness to issues impacting the local community as well as the hospitality industry in events like voter registration drives and hosting candidates during key election cycles and offering emergency overdose Narcan training for nightlife professionals.
“We feel like we’re everything but a bar these days,” she says.
One of Our Bar ATL’s biggest community projects is its annual Hug the Block event in November offering hot showers, hair cuts, clean clothes, and toiletries to unhoused and displaced Atlantans. Participants also enjoy an open bar, full meal service, live music, games, and even manicures. In 2021, the event served an estimated 300 people in a single day.
“We invite everybody in to come party, just take what they want, take what they need, and then a lot of people in the neighborhood and close friends donate their services,” says Oak Kim.
That community-focused mindset stretches into the kitchen at Our Bar ATL, too. Since April 2020, the bar worked with nearly 100 local chefs and hosted more than 400 pop-ups to offer food for its patrons. The pop-up series is on hiatus, but should return next summer. In order to keep things fresh, Oak Kim says they’re changing up the food menu at Our Bar ATL this fall, which currently includes a sports theme with tailgating and street foods like Philly cheesesteaks.
This new menu also provides Our Bar ATL the opportunity to utilize the automats (hot food vending machines) purchased from Denmark that have sat idle at the bar to help speed up service and allow for more affordable, handheld foods such as pizza rolls and pretzels.
“Originally, in my mind, it was my ode to street food,” Oak Kim says. “Most bars and clubs out here, their kitchen closes before last call, or the kitchen is so busy there’s a 40-minute wait. These will eliminate that because people could just grab and go.”
Here’s more from Sarah Oak Kim in her own words on who inspires her in Atlanta and where she likes to eat around town. The responses below were lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Who inspires you with events in restaurants and the community?
I love Noni’s. Matt [Ruppert] and Ryan [Buchanan] have been like gurus and I know I can walk in there and dump whatever concerns I have and they’ll help me work through it. Their tried-and-true menu is delicious. Banshee’s story was very inspiring. Just knowing they have four people who are friends and also industry professionals who came together and got their own spot, I’m always rooting for them.
Favorite off-the-clock meal to make at home
I cook a lot of Asian stuff. My parents live in Duluth, but since Covid I haven’t gone and seen them much because they’re older. I do miss mom’s Korean food. So I try to get Asian food as much as I can or cook Asian food. I’ve been playing around with homemade bread. I’ve been super obsessed with sourdough at the house and the staff really loves it.
Favorite restaurant in Atlanta
El Progresso. Banshee, they’re my inspiration. I like going to So Ba. I get the pho there a lot. I eat at Emerald City Bagels a lot. I go to BeetleCat for the oyster special. Gaja is a good enough fix [for Korean food] when I can’t make it back home. It’s kind of cool to see [Tim Song] make it more approachable for Americans.
Favorite restaurants while traveling
I don’t get to travel that much, but I do want to go to New Orleans. And I believe Houston has a big Vietnamese and Cajun influence. I love MasterChef [and Christine Ha], she opened up a restaurant called The Blind Goat [in Houston]. I just want to taste everything on her menu and I’d love to meet her in person. I keep hearing about [Mexico City] more and more.
What are your future plans in the restaurant industry?
Making these vending machines [automats] a little more common. They’re pretty easy to use, but just figure out a way to go through that learning curve with the masses. And more community stuff, kids stuff. I’ve been playing around with mocktails and hot drinks.
What do you want to see more of in Atlanta’s restaurant scene?
[I’m] on the Old Fourth Ward Business Association. I want to get on the NPU (Neighborhood Planning Unit) board. They make a lot of decisions when it comes to nightlife. There isn’t a lot of collaboration there, it’s always like the neighbors versus the business owners. It would be nice to see more of the city working together in favor of the restaurants instead of blaming us. [I’d also like to see] more business owners be more active in the community. There’s a lot of disconnect when they don’t give back. More kitchen pop-ups, even though we stopped, but having more hyper-focused pop-ups.
Most underrated chef or chef to watch in Atlanta?
Chef Mo of Cheftacular was a close friend of ours. He was like the first person to cook in our kitchen and we still talk about this noodle soup he made. Chef Elliot Farmer (of Cutthroat Kitchen) loves us to death and we love him. He’s going to soon open up his brick-and-mortar, as he should because he’s amazing. He’s definitely one to watch. Dolo’s Pizza moved to Underground Atlanta, but started out at Our Bar. They have a sweet plantain and jalapeno pizza, they do a ricotta cheese and balsamic reduction pizza, crazy combinations, very boutique. I feel like they’re definitely going to be a household name of one of the pizza spots to go to in Atlanta.