The Nightcap is a new series that will feature a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
Kim Okwa Janke opened up Kim’s Backyard, a bar on Telegraph at 24th Street, because she was retired and wanted to party. She insists it’s really as simple as that.
“I like a drink, that’s why,” she says. “You want to drink, you go out and spend money, right? I can handle myself, and maybe 10 or 20 people here, we can drink together.”
Her eyes close, and she breaks into a big laugh. “It’s like a party,” she continues. “I like to party, I don’t care.”
Kim’s Backyard has the classic dive bar look—walls with wood paneling, mirrors and strings of plastic lights, Raiders signs and aging sports posters mostly of football players from the 1990s, a few TVs and a juke box, and an outdoor patio mostly used by smokers. There’s one window, and it has bars on it and a dim, neon red “open” sign that’s barely visible from the street.
The reason Kim’s is unique and not just one more hole in the wall place is Kim, the 68-year-old Korean woman always behind the bar. She’s currently the only full-time employee.
Okwa Janke is a short, spirited woman, with short black hair, black painted-on eyebrows and constantly animated expressions. When she’s talking, her facial expressions and voice fluctuate, and she can appear angry as hell or perfectly happy in the same sentence. She can sound like a tough protector of the bar (“Customers respect me or I don’t let them in,” she says rapidly, as her face squints and eyebrows narrow), and moments later be all smiles as she sweetly brings out free popcorn on red trays for customers seated at the bar. “I’m a people person,” she says, smiling again.
Okwa Janke has been a business owner—mostly small restaurants—in the East Bay for 40 years since moving from Korea. She still owns a sandwich shop in San Leandro called “Nancy’s Café” that is named after the previous owner (“I should have changed the name,” she says, wagging her finger). She opened Kim’s Backyard in 1998 as a retirement gift to herself. Previously, the place was a bar just called “The Backyard.” When Kim’s opened, she didn’t change much, mostly fixing it up and adding a couple TVs.
For the first decade she owned the place, business was pretty typical—a few regular, working-class, middle-aged neighborhood customers. Over the past two years, though, business has changed, Okwa Janke says—now, on many nights, her customers are young people who have either moved to the area or come down on the weekends. During Art Murmur on First Fridays, Okwa Janke says, she’s had a couple hundred people fit in the small place.
While she loves the new customers (“they’re like my own children”), Okwa Janke says she doesn’t understand why some of the kids who come in want to scratch graffiti on her bathroom mirrors. “Why do they do this?” she asks, scowling. “They don’t like a clean bathroom?”
Kim’s opens during the week at 2 pm. For the first few hours of business most days, it’s usually just Okwa Janke and a customer or two, watching a court show on an old big screen TV, with the volume blaring. On Sundays, she barbecues during Raiders games and gives customers free hot dogs. Lately, she’s started a happy hour to cater to the younger crowd, and she serves cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in chilled mugs.
Okwa Janke likes to drink Diet Coke on the rocks during the day, before switching to Remy Martin Cognac at night. That’s usually when the party starts, and she will gladly crank up the jukebox. “Customers say, ‘Please, Kim, it’s my favorite song,'” she says. “What am I going to do? They asked me.” She pours occasional free shots for people she likes, and denies service to those she doesn’t, or feels are too drunk.
“They make me mad, I have to kick them out,” she says of customers who have had too much to drink. “I talk nice, no problem. Next day, no problem.”
She’ll stay open until the last customer leaves. “If there’s four of five people here, it’s a party,” she says, laughing.
Okwa Janke likes to keep things simple, and wants to keep the bar pretty much the same, aside from maybe opening a kitchen to serve late-night food. She says she just loves being behind the bar, giving people free popcorn and having a drink with them. “I just enjoy it,” she says. “Last night was so busy, (at the end) I sat down and had a cocktail and went home. I just enjoyed it.”