Carrboro’s Elmo’s Diner: another victim of COVID-19 pandemic

By Brian Keyes

There should be noise and a flurry of activity around Carr Mill Mall on any given Sunday morning. The line of early risers should give way to the hungover college students, sipping on the coffee they poured from the cart outside. Soon, the church crowd would start to file in sometime around 11 a.m. The line would stretch outside while friends and neighbors chatted away, anticipating their breakfast at Carrboro’s Elmo’s Diner.

Young children would have scampered by the green booths and wobbly diner chairs. Friends who were far too old for such things would have been grabbing a box of crayons to color in one of the iconic ducks that lined the diner’s walls.

A year ago, that would have been the case, but COVID-19 has taken all that away. Elmo’s Diner stood as a pillar for the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro for 29 years as a place where families and college students alike could devour plates of waffles and huevos rancheros from early morning till night.

But not anymore.

The end came suddenly — on March 15, the diner announced it would be closing down due to COVID-19 with the intention of reopening when it was safe. On September 18th, the community was notified that the beloved diner would stay closed for good.

Former resident Steve Dear moved away in 2015, but his heart has always remained in Chapel Hill — at least the version of it that he remembered. Years of development have expanded the sleepy college town that he first came to in 1990 into something he hardly recognized.

“I never looked at it this way, but in a way, Elmo’s was this one dimensional American ideal of the 50s, you know? This wholesome diner kind of place,” Dear said. “But in a cooler way than that.”

Elmo’s was a constant. No matter what else was happening, the diner in Carr Mill Mall always stayed the same.

Elmo’s was meaningful to patrons

Anyone who ever spent time in the area has a story about what Elmo’s meant to them. The Facebook announcement that the diner would close for good has over 300 comments and over 600 shares from former patrons, friends and neighbors.

While attending school at UNC in the mid-90s, Allison Tuell met her husband, Ken, at Elmo’s while working as a waitress. A year’s worth of interactions over coffee turned into flowers on Valentine’s Day, which Ken delivered to Allison’s manager so she wouldn’t be embarrassed at work.

Flowers soon turned into a housewarming party for the first house Ken completed at his contracting job, after which Allison says she never really left his side again. They married in 1999, and soon, two kids followed, Aydan and Tristan, who grew up eating at Elmo’s and hearing their parents’ love story. Now well over two hours away in Asheville where the family moved in 2010, the diner was the family’s touchstone to their old town.

“It seemed, when you would go back, a lot of things changed around,” Allison said. “But when you look at the bricks of the Carr Mill Mall and the old wood floors, it was the same. You got to go back and just feel what Chapel Hill was.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories like the Tuells’. Dear took his kids, Patrick and Katie, to Elmo’s, sometimes several times a week while his wife, Janet, was in graduate school. Anna Morgan, a former UNC student who graduated last year, went for the first time with her boyfriend James in the winter of 2017 (she contends it was a date, he insists it was just dinner with a friend at the time). For years, Christina Sztukowski spent every Saturday there with her father, taking the time to catch up after he was away most of the week on business.

Chapel Hill might have changed drastically since 1991 when Elmo’s first opened — longtime staples like Spanky’s and Pepper’s Pizza having long since closed before COVID-19 shuttered many restaurants’ doors — but Elmo’s was always there.

And now it’s gone.

A stark reminder of COVID-19’s impact

“There’s a strange irony that people always will, you know, go on and on and on about how much they love a place when they’re closed,” Stephen Judge said. “You know, Elmo’s is unique and different because they were still being widely supported and loved even before this.”

Judge, who owns the Schoolkid Records store in Chapel Hill, as well as one in Raleigh, also works with artists who sign under the label of the same name. Elmo’s was where he would take them in the mornings if they had time for breakfast after playing at Cat’s Cradle the night before.

“I think that that’s important lesson to learn, is that, that we need to value these places while they’re still here,” Judge said.

Elmo’s is now a stark reminder of the world Chapel Hill occupies. The dangers of a global pandemic that has already claimed the lives of over 210,000 Americans reaches everywhere, including “the southern part of heaven.” Several other local spots, including Ms. Mong, Kipos and Lula’s, have also permanently shut down.

Despite loosened restrictions that allow for limited indoor seating, Elmo’s small interior and kitchen — formerly part of its cozy charm — proved to be unworkable in a time of masks and social distancing.

For people like Dear who spent his career in Chapel Hill fighting for lives as the executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the closure was a bittersweet silver lining in the restaurant’s history.

“I mean, they stayed closed, and to the point where they had to go out of business,” Dear said. “But they didn’t kill anybody.”

A diner that will be missed

Mostly, folks are just sad that it’s gone. Not shocked, because there’s not much to be shocked about these days. Just sad.

“I took it a little harder than we thought we would,” Whitley Simone Harris, a resident of the Triangle for the past four years, said. “Because on the one hand, it’s just a restaurant. But on the other hand, it was just this little nice spot for us.”

She still hasn’t told her children, Trey and Geneva, that Elmo’s closed down. She doesn’t have the mental bandwidth right now to tell her two toddlers that their favorite pancake spot won’t be there when this is all over.

On any given Sunday evening, the dinner crowd would roll in around 5 p.m., consisting of students from nearby apartments looking for a cheap bite to eat before returning to homework due the next day, or parents too tired to cook that night.

There should be children wiggling to escape the small outdoor patio. There should be teens ordering waffles with a scoop of ice cream, and old men at the counter enjoying their “square meals” of meatloaf, chicken and dumplings.

Instead, there is just the silence of a now empty diner, nestled quietly into a corner of a college town mall that is waiting to see what will close next.

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak