Even before the sun rises above the intersection of West Paces Ferry and Northside Drive, a team of line cooks and wait staff can be seen filtering in through the doors at OK Cafe. Donning crisp white uniforms trimmed in blue and red, they set up the restaurant for the morning’s business. Flicking on the lights and opening the blinds, light streams through the windows and illuminates the retro booths and bar stools that make up this classic Georgia establishment. The scent of freshly brewed coffee fills the air as the staff unlocks the front door and welcomes their early morning clientele.
Here at the OK Cafe, business is steady throughout their regular hours that span from 7am to 10 or 11pm, depending on the day. Originally opened in 1987, this iconic restaurant is a staple for the nearby community, offering a comfortable spot to mix and mingle for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The restaurant’s eye-catching exterior and prominent corner location has even made it a navigational landmark, Buckhead’s answer to Marietta’s “Big Chicken.”
Steeped in history, the restaurant was named as a tribute to a place mentioned in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and an autographed page from the author can be found in the main entrance hallway on the dining side of the building. The other side of the space is decorated with row upon row of caricature portraits of OK’s staff members who have worked there for more than 10 years.
“Half the people, or I’d say 75% of the people on that wall are still here,” explained executive Chef Russ Eberhardt. The restaurant operates on a business model that encourages long-term employees, with benefits and support from management that has bred devoted servers, chefs, and cooks throughout the years.
“They do very much want to run it like a family,” said General Manager Carlos Alarcon of co-owners Susan DeRose and Richard Lewis. In an industry that is known for long hours and little to no safety net for employees, it’s rare to find a place where the higher ups care to make sure their crew has enough time for their families and look out for one another. “They take care of their staff.”
In the past thirty plus years in business, the restaurant has maintained a dedicated following and a long list of regulars who grace the tufted burgundy booths with smooth yellow laminate tabletops while discussing both business and pleasure. “What did I tell you?” whispered a customer to her friend as they walked to their table through the dining room one busy Friday morning. “Every business deal in Buckhead goes down here.”
Known as a place to “see and be seen,” it’s not uncommon to see local sports stars, government officials or local celebs sharing a bite within the retro diner’s walls. On a given week the restaurant sees around 12,000 covers, with some Sundays bringing in around 2,000 guests. Despite its popularity, the systems in place ensure that there’s generally very little wait time.
Loyal OK Cafe regulars were in for a shock when the news broke in 2014 that a fire had erupted in the kitchen during a busy Sunday morning breakfast rush. The crew successfully evacuated the restaurant and firefighters managed to extinguish the flames quickly, but not before it had spread into several rooms and injured a firefighter who was working to put out the fire. The building suffered serious damage that required an extensive ten month rebuild.
In the aftermath of the fire, the community collectively mourned the loss of their favorite go-to restaurant. While owners DeRose and Lewis were straightforward about their intent to ensure the employees would not go without during the rebuild on their own, the community also rallied behind employees of this beloved institution, raising funds to help offset the income loss experienced by the staff. Two regulars, John McColl Jr and his father, Cousins Properties Executive Vice President John McColl, were behind a crowdfunding effort which ultimately provided more than $40,000 in aid to the OK Cafe staff.
“The community was in shock more than anything, just the thought of it not being here,” Alarcon continued. “For some, they eat here 14 times a week – twice a day, or take-away – so it was a huge loss.” Other organizations such as The Giving Kitchen also awarded emergency assistance grants to the workers who were otherwise jobless while the restaurant was cleaned and rebuilt.
These days the restaurant is open and busier than ever, showing no signs of the devastating fire that once ripped through its walls. Hungry guests share meals in the shade of the plaster “money tree” adorned with fake dollar bills in place of leaves, while regulars seated at the bar watch the chefs prepare and serve food at an astonishing pace. Meanwhile, businesspeople in suits continue to make deals in the plush booths and life continues on at OK Cafe just as it has for more than 30 years.