By DAVID JONES
Editor at Large
SUCCESSFUL RESTAURATEURS: Simon and Rida Khatib, owners of Apple Barrel Café, stand in front of their third and newest Greater Tulsa restaurant location. The restaurant is located at 101st Street and Sheridan Road.
ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers
Chicken fried steak! Burgers by the score! Open-faced roast beef sandwiches! Breakfast served all day. Apple pie ala mode! Berry tarts! The new Apple Barrel restaurant that fills the old Arvest Bank at 101st Street and Sheridan Avenue would do Route 66 dining mainstays proud. It is all-American cooking at its best.
But no lamb, which may seem strange because where its owner grew up, lamb was a common in the diet.
“I imagine it’s beef now,” says Owner Simon Khatib, “but when I was growing up in Damascus, lamb was the favorite.”
How did a Syrian steeped in the cuisine of the Middle East wind up selling bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches in Tulsa?
“I wasn’t forced to leave Syria. The Syria I grew up in wasn’t a battleground but a beautiful country where Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully. It was certainly an open society compared to, say, Saudi Arabia.”
But Simon’s older brother had gone to America to get an education, moved into the food business, and wound up owning restaurants in a place that, for a Syrian, must have had an exotic and foreign sound: Oklahoma.
“I came to Tulsa 27 years ago to help my brother,” says Khatib. “He taught me everything I know about the restaurant business. After a few years with him, I felt I could strike out on my own.”
The restaurant business wasn’t the only adventure he undertook. In his trips back to Syria to visit his family, he met Rida. They corresponded, more trips followed, and ultimately they married. She has since been at his side throughout his restaurant ventures.
“I opened my first restaurant on Peoria Avenue in 1996. It was a sort of a fast-food outlet that specialized in fresh foods. It was successful, but I opened it with a partner and I never really felt I had full control over what went on so ultimately I sold it and went looking for my own place.”
Khatib’s journey into the gastronomic wilderness ended in a small restaurant near East 151st Street and Memorial Avenue in Bixby. He gave it a good American name, the Apple Barrel, and frankly admits that he started off with pretty much the menu of the previous restaurant. “As we progressed, I began to experiment and add my own touches to the food. Now, what we serve is entirely to my standards.”
Those standards, he says, emphasize freshness. “A lot of restaurants buy food that has been pre-breaded; they plop it into a fryer and it comes out tasting like everyone else’s meat. Our food is breaded with our own special recipe, and it gives us our unique flavor.”
The Bixby restaurant, Khatib says, was a success from the get-go. It was so successful that he was encouraged to try a second location in Broken Arrow. “That one is at 3806 S. Elm in a shopping center sat well off the street. We were worried that we might be too far off the street, but our customers seem to have found us.”
With Apple Barrel restaurants succeeding in Bixby and Broken Arrow, Khatib turned to Jenks as a likely target for a third restaurant. “I couldn’t find a spot in Jenks, but this empty old bank in south Tulsa is close enough to the general location that I wanted, so I took it. You really know within six months if a location will work, but so far our reception has been excellent.”
What is the hardest part of opening a new restaurant? “Staffing,” Khatib responds. “Some of the people in the Bixby restaurant have been with me from the beginning. A few from the other restaurants are here in this new location but it takes time to get a smoothly-working, harmonious team. I’m pleased with what we have now, but I’m always looking for more.”
The restaurant business is a time-consuming one; the Khatibs work seven days a week. Restaurant hours are 7 a.m.-9 p.m. every day except on Sunday, when they close at 3 p.m. Even when they’re off on a rare vacation, they’re working. “When I go to a restaurant and I order chicken, I’m thinking what spices or herbs would make it even better and if it would be a good addition to our restaurant.”
Khatib, who with his wife has long been a naturalized American citizen, doesn’t think his story is unusual. A citizen from across the ocean makes a trip to these shores, starts a business, marries, has two sons and thrives. That’s a tale as American as apple pie.