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The flashing red neon sign and racing white arrow announced that the Harris Pizza on Rock Island's 14th Avenue was open for business this Christmas Day.

Inside, several dozen people were crowded two-deep, standing in front of the counter. Others were side-by-side on a bench right inside the door, or seated at the bar or tables in the small dining area.

"I've never seen that place so busy," one man said as he and his date emerged from the store with a number corresponding to their 20-minute wait for a pizza order at about 5:30 p.m.

Being open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — a time when many restaurants are closed — has been a tradition at Harris for many years.

In fact, those two days have become the company's busiest, with all four of its Quad-City locations staying open, said Kathaleen Mosley, whose parents, Leonard and Mary Harris, began making their first pizzas in Rock Island in 1960.

 And working on the holidays behind the counter, doing whatever needs to be done — from taking orders and "stretching" the dough to slathering on sauce and packing carryout boxes — are Mosley's two children and fellow owners, Ryan at the Rock Island location and Sunday Saunders at the Bettendorf store.

"We all work in the business every day," Mosley said.

Some people stop in because a big, home-cooked meal was served on Christmas Eve and the cook needs a break. Or maybe a big Christmas Day dinner is still coming, but guests need something to tide them over in the meantime, she said.

In other instances, customers come in because they have moved away from the Quad-Cities, but are back visiting for the holidays and want their Harris "fix."

"They'll say, 'I'm not from here anymore, but this is the first place I come when I come back,' " Mosley said.

The holiday tradition began because "a lot of the people in the neighborhood had nowhere to go," she added.

Taking a break about 2:30 p.m. in Rock Island, Ryan Mosley said he'd probably received 200 phone calls since opening at 11 a.m., many from people who were surprised that someone answered the phone and then thanked him for being open on Christmas.

Getting prepared for the holiday onslaught is a matter of planning, both in terms of ingredients needed for food and staff needed to help. Mother Mosley is on standby.

At the busiest time of day — usually the early evening hours — the wait can be as long as a hour to an hour and 15 minutes, and "not every customer is in a good mood," Ryan Mosley said.

But at 2:30 p.m., Kearnice Overton, 28, of Minneapolis, was on the waiting bench by himself and quite happy.

Although originally from Rock Island, he wasn't thinking of Harris when he started out from his mother's house in search of food for his three preschool children and girlfriend, all of whom were "starving."

He and his family were visiting for Christmas, and the Coco-Puffs and oatmeal they'd had for breakfast after opening gifts were beginning to wear off.

"I'm so grateful they are open today," Overton said of Harris. "I couldn't find anything. I've been driving from end to end, 20 minutes. I was on my way to Moline.

"Then I saw about 20 people rushing out of here and I thought it was a Christmas party. And I saw they all had boxes in their hands."

Overton ordered a large pizza and buffalo wings.

"The kids are going to be happy, that's the main thing," he said.