CHARLESTON, W.Va.--Donna Sales walked into the empty restaurant building on Seventh Avenue intending to purchase some equipment.
A bunch of prayers later, she had herself a restaurant. And since she opened Sistah's Rib Shack this past April, she's been ever mindful of how she landed in the business.
"I can't fail - the Lord gave this to me," said Sales, 48, as she moved cheerfully between tasks such as turning racks of ribs on an outside smoker, cutting them apart and slipping them into homemade sauce and stacking them in carryout containers.
All this while asking customers if they wanted lemonade or iced tea - both given out for free - and dishing up sides such as fried green tomatoes, collard greens and cornbread.
She is wearing a Sistah's T-shirt and even grabs her tiara from her office, laughingly saying, "I'm the queen of soul food. I'm the queen of barbecue."
She admits she's operating on a shoestring and a lot of faith and she is determined to make it in the business.
"I'm not going to give up," said the native of Rand, who has been working around food her whole life. "It is hard work, but I've got a heart for it."
Sales has had smaller food ventures in the past, a little shack on Bream Street and a sandwich shop in Rand. She's also cooked for the American Legion Hall.
She had an eye on some equipment when she met the leasing agent at the Seventh Avenue spot early this year.
"When I walked in, I said, 'Oooh, I would love to have this building,' " she recalled. "He said, 'It's for rent.' And I said, 'I could never afford
Sales then walked outside, put her hand on the building, and told the real estate agent, "I'm going to pray on this building." She called her pastor, Apostle Shirley Walker of Breath of Freshness Church in Rand, and asked her to pray, too.
"It wasn't an hour later that man called me back and said, 'I want you to pray for me, too.' I said, 'Why?' And he said the owner wanted to know what I could afford to pay."
With a break in the rent, a deal on the equipment and some help from friends and family, Sales started Sistah's.
"All I needed was a chance," she said.
Her intention was to serve up good soul food because it isn't offered many places in the Kanawha Valley. Her mom, Ruby Davison, suggested she serve ribs as her centerpiece.
"I didn't know anything about ribs," she admitted. By trial and error, she learned.
And her mom was right - when she cranks up the smokers outside, the customers seem to follow their noses to Sistah's.
She enlisted a cousin to help man the smokers and hired two teens to help out in the kitchen. Her cousin, Ellington Brantley, also is handy with equipment - he recently saved her $100 on a refrigerator repair.