Thomas Rib Shack, the soul food restaurant located at 2931 15th Street on the West End of Tuscaloosa, shut down for one week during the pandemic — just one.
After more than 50 years in business, the staff needed a week to regroup and prepare for the latest adversity any business open for half of a century must face. But they stayed healthy and pressed on, “by the grace of God,” as its co-owner put it — a phrase she would repeat while looking back on the restaurant’s history spanning three generations in the town it loves.
The downhome-style barbecue restaurant touts itself as a place where “good food meets great times,” where you can find “food like grandma used to make.” They’re open 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday, closed on Monday.
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Sharon Thomas-Ransom was 6 when her dad began selling homemade barbecue at his neighborhood grocery store in 1971, the first incarnation of Thomas Rib Shack opened at 3307 34th Street (now Willow Lane). They moved to the corner of 15th Street across from Central Elementary School in 1991 before relocating to their current location just one door down in 2004.
Born in the small town of Akron in Hale County in 1937, a 16-year-old Charles Thomas moved to Tuscaloosa to work at the old Central Foundry in Holt before making his dream of opening his own business a reality, one he and his wife Betty would pass down to multiple generations.
Thomas-Ransom and her brother Michael Thomas, the children of Charles and Betty Thomas, own and operate Thomas Rib Shack now after their father passed away in 2014 and their mother in 2018. While they took over ownership just a few years ago, the Central High School graduates more or less helped run the place since their teenage years. The restaurant expanded to another location on Hargrove Road before Sharon and Michael shut it down after Charles passed away, unable to operate both at once.
She called it “a family-oriented business,” referring to the customers eating in and taking out on their lunch breaks and after church for more than 50 years.
“We should rename this place ‘The Meeting Place,’” Thomas-Ransom said. “People come in and see somebody they haven’t seen in 10 or 20 years. That’s almost every week. They always say, ‘Man, I haven’t seen you in so long.’ It happens all the time.”
Along with the generations of the Thomas family, the food has endured since 1971. “We have good product,” Thomas-Ransom said. “We’ve been blessed, and we’re still being blessed.”
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They make and serve baked chicken quarters, catfish, fried pork chops, hamburger steak, green beans, collard greens, cornbread, stew, peach cobbler and other soul food favorites like beef livers, chitlins, neckbones, oxtail and gizzards. But she said the most-ordered items remain the pork sandwiches and pig’s feet.
“It’s Southern cooking,” Thomas-Ransom said. “To me, it’s from the heart. That’s where we cook from. We’ve had the same menu for the past 30 years. We may have changed one or two items, but that’s it. I promise.”
The dining room has four booths and can seat about 15 people. It has framed art celebrating Alabama football and NBA superstars. Customers stand in line until they reach the counter, where they survey offerings and fill up a plate. Today, they had fried pork chops and baked chicken, plus mac and cheese, white rice, peach cobbler and a few more sides.
Customers vary, she said, ranging from blue-collar folks, white-collar workers, youngsters, millennials — everybody. “It’s not just a neighborhood folk. People come from wherever. One lady called me from Greensboro on Sunday. She wanted three orders and said to go ahead and fix it. I fixed it, and she came and picked up. We serve everybody — Black, white, Hispanic, Chinese . . . everybody.”
And while the family staff at Thomas Rib Shack has spanned three generations, so have the customers.
“The kids who came in with their grandparents, now they’re bringing in their children. Now I’m bringing my children. Generations of people coming in, that means a lot to me,” Thomas-Ransom said. “People just know Thomas Rib Shack. We’ve been here. People appreciate us, and we appreciate them. My three P’s are prayer, perseverance and product.”
And any barbecue restaurant in Tuscaloosa must persevere in the shadow of giants like Archibald’s and Dreamland. While Thomas-Ransom said she does not consider it “competition” with the others in their industry, she likes to think of Thomas Rib Shack as somewhat underrated.
“I would say we are unsung,” she said. “I don’t think of it as a competition at all. It’s enough of it for everybody. People who live in Tuscaloosa forever say, ‘I’ve never been there,’ and then when they come in, they get one thing and then come back and try something else. Then we’ve got a new customer. They were satisfied with what they got the first time. We’re holding our own. We have a barbecue sauce that hasn’t changed in 50 years.”
During the early days of the pandemic, they shut down for one week to “take a breather” and get the restaurant “COVID-ready.” After reopening, business has not fallen off, and the staff has stayed healthy.
Thomas-Ransom said running a Black-owned business like theirs in Tuscaloosa is “unique,” especially considering how quickly most restaurants fold within the first few years of opening. But she said she does not even see it through that prism.
“By the grace of God, we’ve been here,” she said. “Even though I’m a double minority, female and Black, we don’t consider ourselves a Black-owned business. We’re just a restaurant and happen to be Black. I’m glad we’ve been able to sustain it for as long as we have. Maybe if things had been different, maybe we’d be farther along, but it’s working for us. We’re OK right now.”