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ATLANTA -- It was supposed to be the end of an era for an Atlanta institution Thursday. Harold's Barbecue on McDonough Boulevard was supposed to close.

But it didn't because it was saved by its own tradition, its customers.

Harold's has never been known for five star atmosphere. It has been known for its food. Rose Gaston has been going to Harold's for more than 25 years. "We always pick up a gallon of stew for our Christmas dinner," she said.

Paula Reese said this: "Because the meat is so good."

"And the cracklin' corn bread? Oh...it's amazing," said Quinterious Mitchell.

Harold's has become a favorite of governors, famous writers like Lewis Grizzard, comedians like Jeff Foxworthy and sports heroes like Evander Holyfield.

It was founded in 1947 by Harold and Hugh Hembree and has been passed on through the family for 65 years.

It was supposed to close on its anniversary. The current owner Billy Branyon said he told his employees last Monday he would have to close.

"You've had people here for 40 something years," he said. "That includes kitchen help, their parents and grandparents worked here before them, and it's all one big family."

In good days Harolds served over 15 hams a day. In the past nine months they've averaged only one ham a day, according to Branyon. He thinks the economy had a lot to do with the lack of business but also the closing of other Harold's restaurants in Jonesboro and McDonough.

Branyon thinks customers confused the city of McDonough with his McDonough Boulevard restaurant.

Branyon announced the closing publicly last Thursday. "And then that Friday, they piled in here, and Saturday and all this week," he said. Branyon was serving more than10 hams a day.

Mitchell came to the restaurant the day it was supposed to close one last time. "Me and my dad, we're really stuck on the Brunswick stew, and we had to come and get some before they close," he said.

The recent influx of business was enough to convince Branyon he could keep the restaurant open. "I know we're definitely going to stay open the rest of the year," he said. "(Customers) showed us this week that they want us still a part of their lives."

The sigh of relief was palpable in the restaurant where Reese had just placed an order to go. "That would have been it for Atlanta barbecue," she said.

"I feel like a lot of prayers have been answered," Branyon said, hopeful he could keep the tradition going another 65 years.

You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kgrowson

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