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Cultures meet at this Tulsa sub sandwich franchise

Julianne Tran
The inside of Bill & Ruth's on 31st and Memorial where owners serve classic deli favorites along with gyros, kebabs and more.

Driving around Tulsa, it doesn’t take long to see the changes. There’s ramen shops next to American diners, pho restaurants near Mexican bakeries.

And there is at least one place where cultures meet.

At the sandwich chain Bill and Ruth’s, you’ll find menu items like turkey & cheese, cold cut sandwiches and tuna salad.

But at many of the stores, you'll also find gyros, sushi and kebabs prepared by families coming from different corners of the world, working to make a business of their own.

Each owner has a different story — coming from places like Syria, Jordan, Burma and more — but all have come to own their own business: a sub shop in Tulsa, OK.

The start of many families’ stories

"My father-in-law is originally from Damascus, Syria,” says Jeff Kuykendall, owner of the Bill & Ruth’s on 15th and Columbia. Kuykendall took over the family business in 2019 when the store moved buildings.

His father-in-law, Samih Saiymeh, moved to Tulsa to study at Spartan College. When he met his wife, Anita, they wanted to start a family and “needed something quick to have income.”

Bill and Ruths Cherry Street
Samih & Anita Saiymeh (far right and left) pictured with their daughter & son-in-law, Jeff

“So, they got involved with Bill and Ruth Meredith, the original Bill and Ruth, and opened their first store,” says Kuykendall. Saiymeh and his wife opened their store on the corner of 15th Street and Lewis in 1980.

“After 42 years of being in business, we have almost three generations of families that come in. There are people that have been coming here for over 30 years and they still come here, and they bring their grandkids,” says Kuykendall.

Even in his retirement, Samih still works behind the counter from time to time and chatting with longtime customers.

An opportunity for ownership

In Broken Arrow, you’ll find another owner who’s been operating his location for decades.

“I was driving a cab at the time and had a call to bring an employee [to the store],” says owner Riad Kataneh. This was 1999 and Kataneh had recently moved to Tulsa from Palestine.

Kataneh went inside and spoke with the previous owner who happened to be looking to sell the business. “The guy who owned the place [before], he trained me on how to run the business for about a month.”

Since then, Kataneh has operated this Bill & Ruth’s for 24 years.

Julianne Tran
The inside of Ketaneh's shop in Broken Arrow

“It made me, this business,” Kataneh says. “When I came here, I had to borrow money to buy this business ...This business made my life a lot easier, being my own boss.”

"[It was] the best decision I ever made.”

It’s a popular spot. People often have trouble parking because the lot is so full. And everyone knows Riad.

“It’s been good, it’s been good.”

Making Bill & Ruth’s their own

The owner of the Bill & Ruth’s on 31st and Memorial feels the same.

Dania Alkanash owns the restaurant with her husband Hati Hesan. The couple moved from Jordan five years ago and soon after, bought the business from the previous owner. The restaurant has existed in that location for 25 years.

Alkanash and her husband didn’t have prior experience in restaurants.

“We had a lot of help from our friends, and we started slowly. It was something new for us,” Alkanash says.

“Some of the American dishes we were not like familiar with, but the Greek ones, it's our specialty, so it was easy,” the owner says.

The menu now includes dishes like cabbage rolls, kabob platters and dolmas along with classic deli sandwiches.

“We have a lot of regular customers. We know their names, their families. We become friends. Even the employees here, we would not consider them as an employee. They are our friends, our family.”

“It's a family business,” Alkanash says simply.

A new beginning

A new family has taken over the shop on Yale between 31st and 41st street.

Owner Thida Lin and her husband moved to the United States from Burma in 2016. They moved around the country working as sushi chefs in various city markets.
After moving to Tulsa, Lin worked part-time at this location for a year before deciding to buy the business. This shop has existed in this location for nearly 30 years.

Lin bought the business in February 2023. “I want to make my own business. I don’t want to be the employee,” she says.

She continues the location’s tradition of offering sushi alongside American sandwich favorites, started by a previous owner who was originally from Korea.

Julianne Tran
Thida Lin, new owner of the sub and sushi shop on Yale

As Lin begins this new endeavor, other owners have visited her location to offer advice, recounting stories from their early days running their business and moving to the United States.

These owners have made sandwiches, but they’ve also made friendships and shared life with customers they've now known for decades. Bill & Ruth’s tells some of the story of Tulsa — a city that has become home to many, whether they were born nearby or made a long journey over.

Julianne joined Public Radio Tulsa in June 2022 as Development Associate. She wear many hats at the station — connecting with listeners, writing PRT's newsletters, planning events and doing digital behind-the-scenes.