As a teen, Nikki Evans got her ears pierced at Greenbriar Mall and then celebrated the coming-of-age moment at the food court’s Chick-fil-A.
As a cheerleader at Mays High School, she huddled at the eatery with classmates after basketball and football games.
And on Saturday, she rallied her friends one last time to meet at the fast-food chain’s first Chick-fil-A on its final day of business.
“It’s just like bittersweet because this was our childhood for so, so many of us,” said Evans, 56, who grew up shopping at the mall in southwest Atlanta and stopping in for meals. “It was the cornerstone of the community.”
The Chick-fil-A at Greenbriar opened in 1967. It was the first of what would become a chicken sandwich empire that now encompasses about 3,000 restaurants across the United States and beyond.
Nostalgic fans and former and current neighborhood residents descended on the food court Saturday when the mall opened at 11 a.m. They posed for photos, greeted longtime friends and ordered chicken sandwiches, with a side of sauce and sentimentality. A brisk lunchtime business continued throughout the first two hours.
Word of the site’s closure started to spread a few days ago as visitors noticed signs posted in the food court. It hit many hard.
“I was here for the first weekend and I’m here for the last day,” said Demetra Rowan, 65, of Decatur. “I’m trying not to tear up because it’s like part of your history going away.”
She recalled one day having breakfast at the Woolworth’s store cafe in the middle of the mall. After shopping a bit, they noticed a commotion around a new eatery. It had small parfait chairs, and Rowan said her mom fussed because there were only a few tables.
They ordered sandwiches and kept coming back.
Pioneering restaurateur Truett Cathy started off in Hapeville with his Dwarf Grill, now Dwarf House, in 1946. In 1964, he created the recipe for the original chicken sandwich.
Greenbriar Mall was one of the first indoor shopping centers in the region, and when Chick-fil-A opened, it staked out a spot that wasn’t even 400-square feet.
Putting a restaurant inside a shopping mall was “a big bet” at the time, the company notes on its website. But Chick-fil-A continued the strategy with success at gleaming new shopping centers that became hubs of suburban America.
The initial Greenbriar menu, before the restaurant moved to a larger spot inside the mall, was bare-bones. A chicken sandwich cost 59 cents. Diners Saturday paid $5.09 for a chicken sandwich.
The mall, like others across the nation, has lost well-known retailers such as Macy’s but continues to hold an important place in southwest Atlanta.
In a statement, Greenbriar Mall said it “will be forever grateful for the partnership fostered and legacy built with Chick-fil-A and the Cathy Family.”
Chick-fil-A has not commented on the closing.
Claudia Eisenburg was a 16-year-old gift-wrapper at the Muse’s menswear mall store when Chick-fil-A opened. She said she stopped for a bite to eat before her shift on that historic first day.
“It was delicious. I’ve been eating it ever since,” said Eisenburg, 71, who came from Peachtree City to place her usual order, a sandwich and sweet tea.
Chick-fil-A was part of Vickie Henderson’s routine for a long time. She would walk for exercise around the mall in the mornings, get breakfast at Chick-fil-A and refill her lemonade before heading out.
“This is heartbreaking,” said Henderson, 65.
Marquise Drayton, 26, drove Saturday morning from Clemson, South Carolina, accompanied by a small, stuffed and spotted Chick-fil-A cow.
He’s a “foodie historian” who chronicles famous fast-food firsts on his TikTok account. He’s gone to the first Raising Cane’s restaurant in Louisiana and the inaugural Cook Out in North Carolina. He had to witness chicken sandwich history in Atlanta.
“When I found out that they were closing I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to get in on this,’” he said. “Food brings people like together, and Chick-fil-A is so known for their service.”