It was a busy afternoon Friday at Duke's Barbecue on Salem Road in Beaufort as dozens of customers chatted together over steaming plates of chicken, pulled pork and macaroni and cheese.
Call it their last supper-- the restaurant will shut its doors for good today after 21 years in business.
"We're just going to desperately miss the friends we've made while we've been here," said owner Jamie Harrelson, who will take over another Duke's in Blackville. "We just love the acquaintances we've come to know."
The Blackville restaurant is 80 miles away and is doing the bustling business the Beaufort Duke's is not, Harrelson said.There are 14 Duke's franchises statewide.
Originally located on Trask Parkway, Harrelson moved the restaurant to Salem Road almost seven years ago. He saw a 30-percent increase in sales immediately following the move, but business began to decline soon after.
The past two years have been the roughest, he said -- particularly after a barge crashed into the J.E. McTeer Bridge in 2007. Harrelson believes traffic hassles made customers forget where Duke's, open only on Fridays and Saturdays, was located.
"We got a lot of business from offices and stores downtown, government buildings," he said. "But when they had so much traffic out there, they didn't have time to leave to come down here to eat. They just got out of the habit of coming to eat with us."
Still, Harrelson and his wife, Marlenetried to keep Duke's afloat.
In June, they stopped giving themselves a paycheck and began living off their savings. After suppliers raised their prices, the Harrelsons raised the prices on their buffet and take-out barbecue plates. They laid off employees.
Then the national economy soured.
"We just never really recovered," said Harrelson, who will continue to sell real estate in Beaufort while running the Blackville location. He and his wife will also keep their Beaufort home.
Since word has spread that Duke's was closing, customers have been coming in droves to get the last bites of favorites like corn fritters and hush puppies, he said.
Harrelson appreciates the outpouring of support, but wonders how different things might be if some patrons had come to the restaurant more often.
"I just wish they had been here the last two years," he said. " It's real sad to leave, but we just have to look out for ourselves and go where we need to go."