Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week: Thomas Rib Shack Shares Secrets of 50 Years’ Success
Good Tuesday morning and welcome to the third day of Tuscaloosa Restaurant Week, where we are profiling Thomas Rib Shack, an often-overlooked family diner that has been serving southern stables on the west side of town for more than 50 years.
Each day this week, the Thread and Visit Tuscaloosa will highlight the city’s most in-demand dining locations and the hands that prepare our finest food in features published every morning.
Hungry for more? Over 30 participating eateries are also offering unique items or special discounts on their most popular orders all week long! Learn more and get connected now at TuscaloosaRestaurantWeek.com.
What You See Is What You Get
Thomas Rib Shack is as unpretentious as any restaurant in Tuscaloosa. Two dozen people would fill its dining room on the west side of 15th Street between the county jail and Stillman College, where the picture menu on the wall is decades old and looks the part.
There, Sharon Thomas and her family have been making legendary soul food for more than 50 years, making the Rib Shack one of the oldest restaurants in the city.
Thomas stressed her role as a working manager there as she tried to apologize for wearing a T-shirt to her interview for this feature.
"I wish I was one of those pretty bosses, but I'm not," she laughed. "I can have my hair done but then I have to wear a hairnet in the kitchen and so much for that!"
Thomas Rib Shack is not one of those pretty restaurants, it's a plain space with a simple premise, but anyone who has spent time in Tuscaloosa knows you don't stay open for more than 50 years unless the product is exceptional.
"We really don't put on airs here, you know?" Thomas said. "What you see is what you get. I let the work speak for us."
50 Years of Soul Food
Sharon is the daughter of Charles and Betty Thomas, and said her father was a visionary, even as a teenage boy lying about his age to secure a job at Central Foundry - known now as Nucor Steel.
Charles would invite his friends over after their shifts to drink beers and unwind and was clever enough to put them to work while they were chatting. Soon enough, the men had converted Charles' barn into a humble backyard grocery store.
"He started stocking it up, little bit by little bit, and he got what the kids wanted - candy - because if a store is open, kids absolutely will come and buy candy from it," Sharon Thomas told the Thread. "He used to tell me when he sold that first piece of bubble gum, he knew right then he had something going."
So the Thomases had a growing store, and at the same time, barbeque culture was exploding in Tuscaloosa. Sharon isn't afraid to give credit where it's due - she said the revolution really began when Paul "Bear" Bryant became a regular across town at Dreamland.
"That put barbeque on the map in Tuscaloosa," Thomas said. "I've got to keep it real, that's how it got started, when he was going out there and using their name. All this was born then, and that legacy continues today."
With Dreamland taking off and Archibald's open across the river in Northport, Charles and Betty decided to add a barbeque pit of their own at the store.
"When he did that, the floodgates just opened up for him," Sharon said.
Thomas Barbeque started doing business in 1971 and the sauce the couple created 52 years ago is still served and sold at the restaurant today. Setbacks like a fire and a few temporary closures never kept the family down, and in 1981, they rebranded as Thomas Rib Shack.
They've been in their current home on 15th Street since 2004.
Thomas died in 2014 and Betty passed in 2018 - Sharon has run Thomas Rib Shack with her siblings since then.
She said she has a simple acronym explaining the secret to the restaurant's success and staying power. P-P-F-C, for Prayer, Passion, Family and Consistency.
"Prayer because without God, none of this is possible," Thomas said. "He is first and foremost because I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me, you know?"
"As for passion, I've been in this stuff since I was five years old," she said. "It's in my bloodstream, it's just there. Could I see myself doing something else? Maybe, but I've tried a few other things and guess what? They didn't work."
Thomas said she believes she is called to do this, that anything else wouldn't work out - more on that later.
As for the third point, Sharon said Thomas Rib Shack is the quintessential family restaurant. It was founded by her parents and is run now by Sharon and her brothers and sister. Her children and nieces and nephews spend time in the kitchen and will take over the business if they want it.
"When I was five years old. I would be out there in the store with my dad and if a customer needed something, I was often the one to give them the product or the one to bag it up," she said. "I've been doing this all along. Some people, the business dies when the business owners die, but not here. It's in my blood."
"I think we all just want to continue this legacy for the family because we've been here for a while and now we're to a point where we're finally getting exposed after we've been unsung for so long," Thomas said.
Finally, there's consistency. As noted earlier, the sauce hasn't changed since 1971. Thomas said no part of the menu has been altered since 1991.
"There's a Thomas taste - people will eat something and say, "Hey, that tastes like Thomas Rib Shack!'" she said. "When we've tried to do something different they notice a change, they ask what we did differently and why."
"We tried to add new products but people don't want them. We tried hamburgers, we tried hot wings. No, they want the same things we've had for more than 30 years. the pork chop, the pigs' feet and hamburger steak. They don't want anything else."
P-P-F-C. Simple enough.
Staying on Track
Sharon Thomas said she believes her purpose in life, at least for now, is to continue running a family restaurant, where friends can gather and have a meal that tastes like something their grandmother made years ago.
"In life, everybody has a role to play, and when you misplay that role, you tend to get off track," she said. "When you get off track, you need to find your way back and I think you get there by doing what you've been called to do."
Any time she has drifted too far, the ride has gotten bumpy, Thomas said.
"It's like driving your car down the road, you may get off on the shoulder for a little bit, but it gets your focus and you get back on track," she continued. "But if you drive along and get a little further off the shoulder, you might just go down that ravine, OK? And nobody sees you down there. You get away from your calling, you're down in that ravine and nobody can see to know you even need help. Then you hope your GPS is working or someone can hear you call out so you can get back on track."
After a lifetime in restaurant work, Thomas is also grateful for the generations of customers who have allowed the Rib Shack to stay open all these years.
"I just thank God for each and every customer who comes through that door," Thomas said. "We've fed generations of people and when they come in and let us know that they grew up with us, I'm overjoyed, I'm almost brought to tears because we really did that, huh? And these are decent people who have grown up to be whoever they are and they came back with their own families and children and grandchildren."
"For the newcomers, please come in, try us out and we should have something that will fit your palate. We're happy to meet new people and when you come in, I want every plate here to be like an old Sunday dinner."
In lieu of sharing an elevator pitch for the restaurant, Thomas said she preferred to roleplay her standard interaction with a new customer, rattling off a memorized menu pulled from the soul food lover's dreams.
"Welcome to Thomas! We have yams, black-eyes, macaroni, cobbler, cabbage, turnips, rice, pintos or friend okra and all those sides are 100 percent homemade," she almost sang. "We have baked chicken, fried chicken, fried pork chops, pigs' feet and hamburger steaks and today's special is beef tips. We have fried catfish, fried whiting and gizzards, barbecue ribs and barbeque pork! Any of that interest you?"
Thomas Rib Shack is open at 2931 15th Street and is extending their lunch special from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every day during Restaurant Week.
Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more features every morning this week - we'll be back tomorrow with Justin Holt and Executive Chef Brett Garner who are hitting their stride at Southern Ale House.