CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Donna Sales loves the annual Ribfest South Charleston, even though she doesn't cook for or attend it.
"Everyone has ribs on their mind, and they stop by here if they don't go there," said Sales, owner of Sistah's Rib Shack, 1717 Seventh Ave. The self-proclaimed "Queen of Ribs" sometimes wears a tiara as she smokes ribs over a wood fire in front of her restaurant in the former Domino's Pizza building. The enticing smell wafts to drivers on their evening commute.
After a rocky start in her rib-smoking career, Sales says she has the process down to a science. Twice a day, she fills the smoker with racks of ribs rubbed with her special seasoning. She's so sure of the cooking time that she can leave them unattended to run errands and return in time to flip them.
Most of the ribs are pork, but she offers beef ribs for people who don't eat pork. None of the side dishes are cooked with pork, not even the collard greens or green beans, which she seasons with smoked turkey.
Her red beans and rice and rich macaroni and cheese are popular side dishes for the smoky meat. Her cousin, Mary Horton, bakes a sweet cornbread daily and mixes up her special barbeque sauce, a tangy, slightly sweet variation that isn't too thick. Customers carry it out by the bottle.
"I like for people to try the ribs without the sauce first. The flavor is so good. They can add sauce later," Sales said.
Sales, 49, cooks the way she, her four sisters, their mother and grandmother cooked when she grew up in Rand. And, no, her sisters don't own the business with her. She named a short-lived restaurant she owned in Rand Sistah's because her sisters originally planned to join her. They opted out of the arrangement, but she kept the name.
Ribs were on the menu at the original Sistah's, where she built a brick grill to cook them, but she never quite got her recipe right. When she opened the current Sistah's last year, she still hadn't perfected her technique.
"At first, customers told me the ribs were tough," she said. "They loved everything else. I learned from my mistakes, changed the brand of ribs I was using. I tell those people to try me again."
Located just beyond a busy curve before Seventh Avenue, Sistah's didn't attract many customers at first. Sales counted 500 cars whizzing around that curve during rush hour one evening. Only four stopped by her carryout restaurant to pick up supper.
To catch their attention, Sales moved the smoker from behind the restaurant and placed it prominently out front. She saved her money, $50 a week, until she had enough to order a large eye-catching sign.
"Smoke in the air stops traffic," she said.