Call Me Sully: the death-and-life story of your neighborhood oat dealer

Call Me Sully: the death-and-life story of your neighborhood oat dealer
Ian "Sully" Sullivan, The Oatmeal Experience, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Meet Ian "Sully" Sullivan. He's served more than three thousand bowls of oatmeal to Chattanoogans and changed lives - especially his own - in the process.

"I've beat death multiple times. Nobody tells me to get up in the morning."

It's 2018. Ian Sullivan is standing in line at a Jamaican restaurant in the ATL, his wife by his side, about to order when he realizes that nobody ever really gets his name right. 

It’s Ian.

But people jangle it up. 




And taking orders is the Jamaican owner.

“Who surely isn’t going to get my name right,” he says to himself.

So, in this small moment, everything large from the last few years suddenly manifests right there in line, moments from ordering a seafood broil. 

He thinks about the day the doctor told him he was prediabetic and dangerously overweight.

Thinks of all those mornings standing at the microwave, waiting 60 seconds – not 58, not 59 – for his instant oats to cook.

And those early mornings runs, slow miles turning into strong miles turning into 100s of miles.

He thinks of his wife and kids.

He thinks of the 150 pounds he's lost.

All these things converge like headwaters that day in Atlanta, so when the owner asks his name, Ian Sullivan decides he is a new man and responds accordingly:

It's Sully.

Call me Sully.

Not Ian.

But Sully.

And so it begins.

Ian "Sully" Sullivan, The Oatmeal Experience, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Over the last year, Ian “Sully” Sullivan has served some three thousand bowls of oatmeal to Chattanoogans. He’s the owner of The Oatmeal Experience, a food truck that specializes in specialty oatmeal he says “aren’t your granny’s oats.”

He's catered school events, road races, festivals. Every Tuesday from 8 to 11 am, he's parked outside the Shallowford Road YMCA. Wednesday and Thursday, outside Mad Priest Coffee on Broad St. Wherever he goes, kids eat free.

"I'm trying to make healthy cool," he likes to say. His menu, which also includes eggs, granola and yogurt and French toast, presents oatmeal in a creative, exciting, surprising, dynamic ways.

There’s Apple Pie oatmeal. Peach Cobbler. Red Velvet cake. For his catering menu, Sullivan serves turkey and sausage and eggs. 

Folks order. As oats bubble in stove pots, Sully laughs, asks about their day, tells stories.

Growing up on Highway 58, Sullivan always wanted to be a chef. Yet, as he struggled with trauma, food became a refuge, overeating a way to cope. Plus, as a Black man, Sullivan was captivated by a commercial media that intentionally targets Black communities with junk-food advertising.

According to research, fast food restaurants spent $1.5 billion on TV ads in 2019 specifically aimed at Black and Hispanic youth, with Black teens witnessing 75% more fast-food advertising than their white counterparts and, according to the University of Connecticut, "no healthy items were promoted on Spanish-language TV."

Food as a Verb thanks Fast Break Athletics, our city's oldest running store, for its generous support of local food and storytelling.

Since 1977, Fast Break Athletics has been at the heart of Chattanooga's running community. Visit their new store on Hamilton Ave.

For Sully, food became a refuge then a prison.

In 2015, the doctor told him: you’re pre-diabetic. He was 25.

He began a start-stop attempts at redefining himself. Changed jobs. Changed perspectives. Changed his diet. A push-pull between unconscious patterns and waking up.

Sully got a new job, but money was still tight. No more restaurants or eating out. For breakfast, he'd buy $2.50 packs of Quaker Instant Maple Syrup Oats, the cheapest breakfast he could find at Walmart. Each morning, the routine began.

Instant oats into the bowl.

One-third cup of water per pack. No more, no less.

Microwave, 60 seconds. No more, no less. 

Not 59.

Not 58.

But 60.

“If I didn’t do it right, I had to restart the process,” he said.

Slowly, every morning at the microwave, his life changed. Everything he needed was present in the simple act of making oatmeal.




“Oatmeal was the thing that helped me become a better person,” he says. 

The Oatmeal Experience, Chattanooga, Tennessee

A job at VW turned to a job at Cigna. Sully, who believes in the Deion Sanders's adage look good, play good, began to match his fashion with his oatmeal. On blueberry oatmeal day, a blue shirt. Peach oatmeal, a peach shirt. His colleagues noticed. Umm, will you make our oatmeal?

By 2018, he’d lost 100 pounds. Everything began to feel different, disciplined, grounded. To celebrate, he and his wife went to Atlanta.

And the Jamaican restaurant.

It's Sully.

Call me Sully.

“When he said it back to me, that was the moment I knew,” he said. “All the work, all the oatmeal, all the sacrifices I made to lose a whole human in weight. It was paying off. I got to introduce a new me to the world.”

Then, during the pandemic, he decided to start running.

Sixteen-minute early morning miles turned into 12-minute miles. Three miles became six.

“I kept working at it," he said. "I fell in love with the process of running for months and months as seasons change and different elements, rain, snow, hot day.”

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When Ahmaud Arbery was murdered, Sully knew: I'm committing to something bigger, like a marathon.

“Only two percent of African-Americans run major marathons,” he said. 

He signed up for a local race. At the last minute, it was moved to north Georgia, often through rural roads. Sully almost backed out. 

“All during run, I was seeing rebel flags," he said. "My mom had given me a shirt to wear: Just a Black Man Running for his Health."

Throughout the race, white runners whispered encouraging comments: Good work. Keep going. We're with you.

"Running is real community," Sully said.

Chris Newby and Ian "Sully" Sullivan

On May 7, 2022, two days before he turned 32, Sullivan opened The Oatmeal Experience, Chattanooga’s only oatmeal food truck. He'd partnered with a friend and Chris Newby, a local entrepreneur and community activist.

"Oatmeal was the thing that helped me become a better person."

And the man close to death, dangerously overweight, absent as a father and husband, had been remade, reborn.

"Saul to Paul," he said.

Earlier this summer, Sully finished 100 days of running. He's signed up for The Race, a half-marathon in Atlanta where the vast majority of runners are Black.

He's started Joy Running Club, a local running club that promotes running and healthy lifestyles in Black neighborhoods, especially overlooked ones.

In July, he hosted a group run in the Westside, partnering with Sarah Barnett from Fast Break Athletics, bringing water, tangerines, Gatorate. Kids came out, families cheer, as Sully and others run through the neighborhood. Some kids have shoes, some don't. Once, Sully carried a three-year old on his back.

"For 12 or 13 minutes of running, they’re not in the Westside anymore. Their mind is not in the Westside," he said. "They’re getting a whole new experience."

He plans to host group runs in more neighborhoods. Then, a 5k.

"It's teaching them the endurance in running that they’re going to need in life," he said.

Ian "Sully" Sullivan, The Oatmeal Experience

This morning, just like yesterday and the day before, a 33-year old Black man rises at 4.30 am from his Chattanooga home as his wife and two kids still sleep. He slips on his Nike running shoes and runs the early morning streets. 

“I’ve beat death multiple times. Nobody tells me I have to get up in the morning," he says.

He'll return home, make his oatmeal.

60 seconds.

Not 59.

Not 58.

This is Sully. 

A small business owner and entreprenuer.

An attentive loving father and husband, 10 years married. 

A Black male runner encouraging other Black male runners.

A Chattanoogan serving oatmeal as a way to transform, love and encourage others.

"Food," Sully says, "is the way to everybody’s heart."

Ian "Sully" Sullivan, The Oatmeal Experience, Chattanooga, Tennessee

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit

Story ideas? Interested in sponsorship opportunities + supporting our work? Comments + questions? Contact David Cook at This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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