While its fans are mourning the permanent closing of Elmo’s Diner in Carrboro, co-owner Chuck Mills ’89 is taking a moment to exhale and to take stock.
“There will come a point where I will start to reflect on all this,” Mills said. “I made great relationships with people I worked with every day for 25 years, and now I can’t see them.
“So much of life happened while I was there. The world was changing and evolving while I was in that same little kitchen day in and day out. I’ll start missing it, but right now I’m taking a deep breath.”
Even though Elmo’s specialized in comfort foot, running a restaurant is notoriously stressful. Every order of the diner’s waffles, omelets and tuna melts had to be served up quickly, at the right temperature and reliably tasty, regardless of what might be going on behind the scenes. Customers don’t want to know that an oven quit working in the middle of a shift or that two servers called in sick at the start of Sunday brunch, the diner’s busiest day of the week. No matter what, “you have to get the food out,” Mills said.
“There’s always pressure to make sure everything runs smoothly so customers don’t know there is a problem.”
For 25 years, Mills had shouldered that pressure in the Carr Mill Mall diner’s kitchen. But back in March, trying to manage the looming pandemic wasn’t an option.
Elmo’s already had closed temporarily that month just before the governor ordered dining rooms across North Carolina to shut down. The usually packed diner had done only about a third of its typical business all week. People were growing uneasy about venturing out, and Mills and the other Elmo’s partners were concerned about keeping customers and the 85 staff members safe.
“We didn’t know how the coronavirus worked or spread,” Mills said. “We thought by summer, all this would be past. Like the flu.”
So on what would turn out to be their last day at Elmo’s, Mills and the staff packed up the kitchen, donated the perishables and figured they’d be back, business as usual, in a few months.
“There was no clue it was coming to an end,” he said. “But it did.”
Even after the governor eased restrictions in May to allow restaurants to open at half capacity, Elmo’s remained shut. Despite high ceilings, its kitchen and dining room were small. With social distancing, the patio could fit only three tables, and the outdoor space around the mall wasn’t conducive to an enjoyable dining experience. Reopening would bring a continuous flow of people coming in and eating without masks. Servers would be in a tight space with little ventilation for six to eight hours at a time.
“We were hopeful that a vaccine might come sooner rather than later,” Mills said. The pain intensified as the shutdown dragged on, but “there was nothing we could do until the pandemic eases.”
Bills came in, even though customers couldn’t. So in September, with rumors — false at the time — about Elmo’s closing already flitting around social media, the partners assessed the situation and made the painful call to close for good.
Elmo’s had been a community gathering space for 29 years. Alumni would return long after they’d graduated and bring their children to continue the tradition. The restaurant was a part of customers’ youth or their daily routine. The outpouring of condolences and reminiscences from Elmo’s former customers has eased the sting for Mills.
“You like to see that what you do had an effect on people and made a difference.”
— Nancy E. Oates