If you saw it in the movies, you’d never believe it. Back in the days, when President Kennedy spent the occasional night in Tulsa’s opulent Mayo Hotel, a few miles to the west a young boy was bagging groceries in a part of town where Kennedys never went. But the boy had a fire in his belly, and 40 years later, James Wilburn, that young lad from Carbondale, a Tulsa neighborhood, owned the sports-entertainment colossus Winnercomm, one of Tulsa’s biggest businesses. And now, easily rich enough to sit at the President’s table, here he is instead sitting on a banquette near the gleaming futuristic oven that dominates the elegant new Tulsa outpost of his latest business venture, a restaurant that has revolutionized the concept of kitchen design. He’s taking a short break in a workday that began, as it does every day, at 6:30 a.m. Has he fulfilled his childhood dreams?
“Oh yes,” he says, “and beyond.”
Perhaps this wouldn’t satisfy a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d want to make young Wilburn’s life even tougher. He’d make the kind, hard-working parents not only poor but blind. Five-year-old Wilburn would have to help them navigate. The screenwriter would add three siblings for Wilburn, the eldest, to support. He’d have Wilburn not only bag groceries but take a second job selling Kinney shoes. Wilburn would use the salary to put himself through the exclusive Bishop Kelley high school and then take on a third job to pay his way through The University of Tulsa. But no one would believe that all this could happen, except that it did. Wilburn’s third job was driving school buses, and his workday began at 6 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., when he would finally find time to do his homework. Shoe salesman is not your typical glamour job, but he loved it. He was willing to work hard, and he loved selling things. And when he later worked for Tulsa’s Channel 8, he became its best salesman. Many years of hard work later, Winnercomm was born. And then Ralph Desiano walked into Wilburn’s life.
It was 2009. Wilburn wanted to diversify. Planning to open a restaurant in south Tulsa, he interviewed Desiano for the post of manager. “He was vastly overqualified,” says Wilburn. Desiano, who had worked for decades for restaurant companies, talked about his dream of opening a restaurant in his native town of Naples, Fla., a restaurant based on a totally new concept of efficient kitchen design. Two hours later, they were still talking, and Wilburn had agreed to be the business partner of a man he had never laid eyes on before that morning.
Create a full range of delicious and innovative meals and tidbits using only a pizza oven. It sounds like a Top Chef challenge. Happily, a top chef rose to the challenge. Desiano comes from a big Italian family of creative cooks, Wilburn explains, and his mother, his wife, his whole family, helped him. There’s pizza, of course, featuring buffalo mozzarella and a house-made sauce that uses San Marzano tomatoes from southern Italy; but the star of the show is flatbread. Whatever cuisine or flavor you’re in the mood for, says Wilburn, you can get it here. Want Indian? Try the Tikka, with chicken tikka, mozzarella, masala sauce and balsamic reduction. Japanese? Get the Ginsu, topped with Ahi tuna, avocado and wasabi cream. Jamaican barbecue? Choose the Hey Jerk, and savor pulled pork, applewood-smoked bacon, pineapples and roasted peppers basted in a Caribbean jerk sauce. Each pizza and flatbread is also available gluten-free.
And don’t forget, Wilburn continues, it’s not just flatbread. There’s Osso Buco, a huge pork shank infused with demi-glace and braised for hours
The first Naples Flatbread opened in Naples, Fla., at the height of the recession, in a desolate mall surrounded by abandoned, bankrupt stores. But, says Wilburn “people loved the food.” The word spread, and within a few weeks, business was booming. The partners soon opened a much bigger one in nearby Estero, Fla., and now one in Tulsa.
Wilburn stands, stretches. His businesses are booming, he’s rich by any standard, so why does he still work as hard as he did back in his hungry salad days? “Hey,” says Wilburn, “I’m only 60! Don’t put me in the grave yet!” 4929 E. 71st St., Tulsa. www.naplesflatbread.com