By Joel Hall
Since 1990, Harold's Barbecue in Jonesboro has been sharing with Clayton County the same Hembree family recipe of slow-cooked ribs that made its original Atlanta location famous. Last month, however, the landmark restaurant became the latest victim of a dismal economy.
After 18 years of operation, Harold's Barbecue closed it's doors for good on Aug. 16.
The Jonesboro location was opened by Lee Hembree, son of Harold Hembree, Sr., who founded the original restaurant in 1947 at 171 McDonough Blvd., S.E., in Atlanta. Lisa Ison, Lee Hembree's daughter, purchased the restaurant at 265 Highway 54 in Jonesboro from her parents in 2001.
Ison said that until four years ago, business at the Jonesboro location was good, but several factors, such as the economy, crime, rising gas prices and the Clayton County Public School accreditation crisis have driven away many of her customers.
"It's really been a struggle since 2004," said Ison. "A lot of businesses were going out and a lot of crime was coming in. With everybody moving out, I just don't have a dinner business anymore. It was like a ghost town at night.
"This past six months, with the gas and the economy ... they were like the straw that broke the camel's back," Ison continued. "Our plates are $6.95 and that's two gallons of gas."
Ison said the restaurant industry has been harder hit than other industries. She said in addition to the rising cost of food, trucking companies have started adding gas surcharges to food shipments.
"Naturally, I'm heart broken because it was more than just a restaurant for me," said Ison. "My parents started it and it was the only job I had growing up. I liked it so much that I bought it from them."
"It's like the death of a child," said Ison, referring to the store's closing. "I had to let people go who had been with me for 13 years. It's not what we wanted to do, but financially, it's what we had to do."
Over the past few weeks, news of Harold's closing has trickled through the community. Some regular customers started to notice the restaurant's parking lot, usually filled at lunchtime, was unusually empty.
"I just learned last week when I was passing by and I noticed no cars in the parking lot during the lunch hour, and that was strange," said Yulonda Beauford, president and CEO of the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce. "Then, I looked up at the marquee. I was immediately surprised because they have been a community landmark for a number of years.
"Harold's was like an institution in Clayton County," Beauford said. "Quite a bit of my business meetings would be held at Harold's. You'd never know when you were in there who you would see."
Gail Glancy, owner of Butch's Chicken House, another well-established restaurant in Jonesboro, said the economy in Clayton County has been "a struggle for everybody, all up and down.
"I was sorry to hear about it," said Glancy. "It's kind of hard because a lot of businesses are going out right now.
"We have very good customers that are loyal, but we just thank the Lord and take it one day at a time," said Glancy.
Ison said issues such as the recent loss of the school system's accreditation, on top of the economy, have driven many of her most loyal customers south to counties like Henry and Fayette.
"That restaurant at that location will be closed for good," said Ison. "I won't say I won't open another Harold's, but I will not open another one in Clayton County."
Beauford said the loss of Harold's Barbecue is a telling sign of the present economic challenges, but encouraged residents to continue to support local businesses.
"Right now, anything can happen to any of our businesses in the current economy, but I want to keep the county on a positive note and encourage them to buy local," said Beauford. "We want to make sure we are keeping our businesses open and keeping our citizens employed. That is going to be critical during this time."