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Greenville Chinese-American restaurateur works to change landscape of ‘Chinese food’

Krys Merryman //November 8, 2023//

Greenville Chinese-American restaurateur works to change landscape of ‘Chinese food’

Krys Merryman //November 8, 2023//

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, Khailing Neoh started to dream up the idea of opening a restaurant of her own.

Although she is from Canton, Ohio, she holds strong to her Chinese-American roots, following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, despite them wanting to stay in the engineering field. Before Sum Bar, Neoh was working at a corporation in engineering sales and marketing.

Neoh is first-generation American. Her father grew up in Malaysia (Chinese Malaysian), so she has a strong tie to her Southeast Asian roots as well.

Neoh and her business partner committed to the idea of opening an evening dim sum and cocktail bar.

From there, Sum Bar was born.

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“Dim sum in America is great because it's authentic in its dishes and an enjoyable shared experience,” said Neoh. “That's what drew me to dim sum as the core of Sum Bar: the communal aspect, authenticity, and the comforting dishes. My original goal was to present Chinese cuisine in my Asian-American perspective as opposed to what people might assume Chinese cuisine is (takeout, red and gold, fried, sweet and sour chicken). There's no harm or shame in Chinese takeout restaurants. However, it's important for Americans to recognize the difference between American Chinese food and Chinese food. At Sum Bar we have the privilege of serving dishes we'd like to serve and how we'd like to serve them.”

Sum Bar was an idea that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic, from an idea inside the head of Khailing Neoh to a location on E. Washington Street in Greenville. (Photo/Provided)After surveying people and dozens of pop-ups, Neoh said they found the brick-and-mortar location at 307 E. Washington St. in downtown Greenville, and she quit her full-time job to focus on Sum Bar.

“It was a kind enough job but took away from my real passion of working and connecting with people,” Neoh said. “The restaurant industry allows me to stay close to the community in an intimate way. What is more intimate than food and storytelling? Thank you, Greenville, for giving me that opportunity. Greenville as a city is a beautiful growing landscape full of energy. It felt like the right place and the right time for dim sum in Greenville. We weren't looking for a specific area but knew we'd know it was right when we saw it.”

Even though Sum Bar has been open less than a year, it has gained a lot of traction and buzz, and positive feedback from the community, she said.

“Seeing the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and the shared outdoor area was great,” said Neoh. “The landlord, David Stone of Stone Family Properties, had/has such a vision for the property and the growth of the city of Greenville. We knew it was the perfect fit. We love the downtown area for its walkability and the liveliness that comes with its events and people. Here we are two years later with a fully stocked bar and ready for the bustling holiday season.”

Over the last nine months, Neoh said they’ve made major improvements and are proud of where they stand today.

“We have a fantastic team that cares about the guests, new and returning. Our food menu may seem small, but there are constant rotational items and specials that we are excited to share,” said Neoh. “Keeping the menu tighter allows us to execute to the best of our abilities. Given that all our dishes are made in house and all dumplings are hand-wrapped, we take pride in serving the highest quality dim sum to our customers.”

Khailing Neoh left behind a corporate career in engineering and marketing to start her own restaurant. (Photo/Provided)The advice Neoh has for aspiring restaurateurs is to lead with vulnerability, to be open and honest about your strengths and weaknesses to your partners, team members and peers.

“The more support you can garner the better, because this is a difficult and consuming industry,” she said. “The thought of being on an island during the startup period should encourage you to lead with authenticity rather than ego. I attribute all our success to the generosity and talent of all those around me. There's not a single part of the restaurant that I built entirely on my own. My team members, especially, know where I fall short, and I trust that they can fill in the cracks.”

When asked if there any plans to open additional locations at this time, Neoh said, for now, they're putting all their efforts into growth, expanding their menu, and continuing to create exceptional dining experiences.

“Our main goal is to provide the best possible dining experience,” she said. “We encourage our guests to experiment and try something new. If it's not their cup of tea, we're happy to pivot and make sure they do find something they like. This goes for food and cocktails. The idea is to explore and connect. Thank you for giving us the chance to do that.”