Fair food event lifts spirits after N.C. State Fair cancellation

By Anne Tate

When Dan Goolsby, 65, approached the rows of colorful food stands outside of J.S. Dorton Arena, which wafted the familiar scent of sugar-dusted funnel cakes through the air, he got goosebumps. He was teary-eyed thinking about the fair that he went to multiple times every year for 50 years.

Although the N.C. State Fair was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, fair food trucks and stands opened for 11 days of fried fun on the Raleigh fairgrounds. Hand-washing stations replaced ticket booths and masks covered smiles, but the familiarity of food on a stick and other once-a-year treats kept most spirits high.

The N.C. State Fair Food Event, featuring 22 North Carolina vendors, gave Dan Goolsby an afternoon of normalcy, where all he had to worry about was how long the lines would be. On their first day at the event, Dan Goolsby and his wife, Carolyn, waited in line for an hour for Italian sausages. But that didn’t stop them from coming back – and they planned to go again for a third day in a row.

“The best thing out here is the roasted corn,” Carolyn Goolsby said.

As they ate a garlic chicken pita and ribbon fries, the couple said that they were especially excited for the fair this year. They just turned 65 and planned to take advantage of the free fair admission for patrons 65 and older.

“We were planning on coming every day if we could,” Dan Goolsby said, a dab of tzatziki sauce on his nose.

In all the years they’ve visited, the couple will never forget the electric energy of going to the fair in the morning, cheering on UNC-Chapel Hill against N.C. State University at Carter-Finley Stadium in the afternoon, and celebrating a Tar Heel victory back at the fair in the evening. That, and when Carolyn Goolsby placed fifth in the cross-stitch competition.

They agreed that the fair food event definitely boosted their mood.

Lower-energy, but still fun

Bryan Farr, 35, came to the fair food event to enjoy “some unhealthy but comfortable snacks.” His favorite fix: the deep-fried crab ball stuffed with melted pimento cheese. He missed some aspects of the fair, but seemed content sitting in the afternoon sun eating his gourmet pumpkin spice funnel cake.

“It’s all about the food. Food is number one,” Farr said. “But I don’t mind risking my life on a fair ride.”

Without the blinking lights of rides and the music amplified from game booths, the event seemed to have less energy than the lively crowds of prior years, Farr said.

“I think from the mood of the pandemic, people are quieter these days,” Farr said.

Away from the lengthy lines, Christina Lane, 37, and Josh Menzone, 32, watched four-year-old Aria climb over a 200-pound watermelon and a 500-pound pumpkin. They were disappointed about missing the fair, but figured they’d grab some food because, “it’s obviously the best part,” Christina said.

“Did you like what you ate so far?” Lane asked her daughter.

“Uh-huh,” Aria replied, scaling the pumpkin.

Aria didn’t get to see her favorite part of the N.C. State Fair – the pig races – but she seemed satisfied with her corn dog, french fries, and the prospect of a candy apple and some cotton candy.

“It’s definitely not the same,” Lane said. “But it’s nice to just be here doing something different with the family and not have to worry so much about COVID and everything because it’s so spaced out and it’s not crowded.”

“I actually enjoy it like this, there’s nobody here,” Menzone said.

“He likes it better,” Lane replied, laughing.

COVID-19 concerns

When UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore Leighann Vinesett, 19, arrived at the fairgrounds on a date with her boyfriend, Brandon Conquest, 22, she felt like she had stepped back into 2019, before the pandemic began. And she wasn’t happy about it.

It was a Saturday, the lines were huge, and people kept taking their masks off to eat, she said. It felt like the regular State Fair and Vinesett didn’t feel safe.

“Do other people here feel that? Did anyone else feel anxious or was that just me being paranoid?” Vinesett asked. “Honestly, I thought it was terrifying.”

Vinesett skipped the crack-n-cheese-stuffed smoked turkey leg and left without buying any food.

Ragin’ Cajun owner Chris Wrenn, 50, also felt the familiarity of pre-COVID-19 life. But he liked it.

Each day, Wrenn looked out from behind the plexiglass barrier of his stand and saw something “close-ish” to normal. He saw people smiling with happy kids on their shoulders, wearing little masks and holding corn dogs and candy apples in both hands. Behind him, his staff skewered lightly breaded alligator tail and fried jalapeño bacon pimento cheese fritters to dip in Cajun ranch sauce. Every day, these specialties fought for fan favorite.

Although the event only lasted about a week and a half, the income from Ragin’ Cajun helped Wrenn beyond keeping his business afloat. His only daughter is getting married in December, and the fair food money helped with the dress shopping.

“It’s been good to be out here and generate some income to give her the wedding that her mom and I want her to have,” Wrenn said.

A chance to “reach a hand out” to those in need

Wrenn didn’t just give back to his family. Every vendor at the event contributed $100 to donate to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina for Food Lion Hunger Relief Day.

“We’ve got to remember that one of the biggest things we can do right now, I think everybody can do, is to find somebody you can help,” Wrenn said. “Just reach a hand out, no matter what color or political affiliation.”

Fat Boys BBQ owner and pitmaster Bobby Scott, 55, was very excited about the $2,200 donation – and to show off his 14-foot-long meat smoker, equipped with a 12-foot smokestack.

“Everybody says, ‘That looks like an atomic bomb,’” Scott said.

Usually, Fat Boys wouldn’t need to bring the smoker on-site, but during the event they couldn’t cook the meat fast enough. It was the busiest Scott had ever been in his career, he said.

He was shocked that the crowds were so big, and he was worried about a COVID-19 outbreak being traced back to the fair. But he appreciated that most people wore masks and seemed to be social distancing.

Despite his fears, he recognized that most people wanted to get out of the house. And he was glad to see new people.

“COVID turned everything for everybody upside down,” Scott said. “This one event has turned it back right side up for me.”

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak

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

Growing pains abound: A Durham restaurant’s COVID-19 challenges

By Blake Weaver

Jazz music plays while patrons argue among themselves about which flavored butter to order. College students sit next to professional athletes and blue-collar workers sit next to their city leaders. Dame’s Chicken and Waffles really doesn’t have any boundaries, even with a six-foot distance between tables.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia because of the history of the food and the music that we espouse and those two are married together,” Damion “Dame” Moore, co-owner of the restaurant, said. “At the end of the day, we want everybody to come here and experience. If you can learn something from it or share something with someone else, it’s all to the good.”

Even with over 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Durham County and mandatory masks, the Durham location keeps their tables full during rush hours. The same holds true for the Cary and Greensboro locations. The three have also pivoted to include a heavy focus on take-out. While there were growing pains abound and problems to be solved on how to go about practices like packaging food, the team eventually worked out simple solutions. Moore said these were good problems to have.

However, the food industry is one of the largest economic victims of the pandemic. Restaurants were forced to close their doors and refocus, or even reimagine, how they would continue to serve food. Dame’s was not immune to that challenge.

Dame’s expansion into Chapel Hill

The brand was originally set to open a new location on Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street, replacing the unit that [B]Ski’s had previously occupied. To Moore and co-owner Randy Wadsworth, opening in Chapel Hill was a no-brainer. The team believed their product had a proven, strong appeal to the demographics on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus that would expand into the greater Chapel Hill area.

Moore remembers college students coming into their Durham location when they opened in 2010, checking in on MySpace and Facebook, and being followed by even more students who did the same thing. Word-of-mouth advertising was the lifeblood of the restaurant back then and students obliged.

When the opportunity to take the recently vacant unit presented itself to the team, they knew they could handle it. Dame’s took ownership of the spot in January and originally looked towards a grand opening in either April or May. The concept would be noticeably different than their three sit-down locations, given the shotgun-style layout. In a space where they would have to pivot to a faster service model, the location would give them direct access to the UNC-CH campus and an undergraduate population of just under 20,000 students.

COVID-19 expansion setbacks

The team then decided to pause the expansion after the nation began shutting down and UNC-CH ordered students to return home.

“Come March, when the pandemic is full blast and people are leaving campus, we didn’t know what was going on in the world, so there was no need to open it now. So that ran its course and then you fall into the whole thing where now we’re in the summer and no one is really on campus,” Moore said. “Do you open and try to make it through the summer or do you pull back and see what happens?”

Moore thinks it was one of the team’s smartest decisions to not open at that time. When his team began looking at Chapel Hill, and up until the team decided to pause their new expansion, they felt it made no economic sense to try and rush things.

He looked at the recent closings of Medici, Lula’s and Lotsa Pizza, all at the main intersection of Franklin Street. All premium products in a market saturated with cheaper alternatives.

Moore and his team have considered the instability of Franklin Street’s restaurant market and they are not looking to simply rely on just their established product and brand.

This won’t be the brand’s first foray into a comparably faster service model. In 2015, the restaurant opened a quick service location on Duke’s Central campus named “Dame’s Express.” While it was difficult maintaining the nuance of the brand with the altered restaurant style, Moore believed that utilizing a different technique was a great experience.

“I do think that our brand has strong appeal. I do think we are a proven concept in this market and that people value it. I have fairly good confidence that our team will be able to execute at a high enough level to exceed expectations and do well in that market,” Moore said. “It also doesn’t hurt that we have a catering ability.”

Meanwhile, the three sit-down locations continue to serve guests both in-house and through takeout. Dame’s is also partnering with Durham Delivers, a food delivery service that pairs local restaurants with community members to make deliveries to designated areas. The service works to help restaurants avoid the high costs of food delivery services.

Moore anticipates the Chapel Hill location doesn’t have long before opening, as the physical aspects and inspections wrapping up and the administrative work is not far behind. He is delighted by is the patience and support his team has seen from the Chapel Hill community while they take their time getting the location up to Dame’s Chicken and Waffles’ high standards.

Edited by Natalia Bartkowiak