The iconic Elmo the duck – a coloring page that has been scribbled on by many Durham children – is emblematic of this local diner and its community spirit. Kids love coming here. Your kids will tell you this themselves, but if you don’t believe them, there’s proof: Elmo’s has won the Indy Award for Best Kid Friendly restaurant in Durham for several years in a row.
In fact, co-owner Cammie Brantley was a fifth grade teacher before she came on board full time at Elmo’s, and she always knew she wanted the restaurant to be a place that was linked in with the Durham community. Wayne Hodges, Brantley’s husband and Elmo’s co-owner, feels the same way, as does Amy Testa, a long time Elmo’s manager who became an owner in 2014. Many years ago, the trio decided to nix their marketing budget and replace it with their First Tuesday Program. Each first Tuesday of the month, a Durham school PTA gets 10% of total sales. Brantley and her crew love being in a position to make an impact on Durham schools. And they also love what they do, a fact that is evident every time you walk into Elmo’s. The place feels warm, inviting, and homey – a feeling that can only be created when people feel, well … at home.
Part of the homey feel of Elmo’s can be attributed to its name, which people often ask about. While brainstorming names for the new restaurant, Cammie happened to watch a movie with a sympathetic main character by the name of Elmo. He was a bit of an underdog. “But he was a character you wanted to root for,” Brantley says. The name also seemed “friendly and unpretentious” – two qualities they wanted to emphasize for the diner.
Some local Durhamites might remember that Ninth Street in 1997, when Elmo’s opened, was a very different place than it is today. For one thing, the Elmo’s building itself has had many lives – first as a taxi cab company in the 1930’s, then as a beauty college, and then as Ninth Street Bakery (which has since moved downtown). Cammie remembers hanging out on the building’s front porch in the months before Elmo’s opened and the inside was under construction. “It was so quiet back then,” Cammie remembers. But Elmo’s, along with Barnes Supply Co., The Regulator, and a few other fixtures on Durham’s Ninth Street, have been steadfast in their dedication to this district, bringing in business and helping the street to become the thriving dining and shopping area it is today. Running a diner is a lot of work, but Brantley and the Elmo’s crew love watching the children grow up as they come in for pancakes and waffles year after year.
And it’s not just kids who feel comfortable in the booths, soda counter stools, and vintage-style tables at Elmo’s. One regular customer, Mr. Horace Dunn, visits the restaurant almost daily. When his brother died last year, he received a bouquet of flowers from “the Elmo’s family.” “And that’s what this is,” he says gesturing to the busy dining floor and full booths, “Elmo’s is a family.”
Here’s what Cammie is up to when she’s not busy at Elmo’s:
Kids’ Sports: Amy runs the Elmo’s show on weekends so that Cammie and Wayne can keep up with their ten-year-old son Matthew’s busy sports schedule, which includes soccer and basketball.
Books: The whole family loves to read. Matthew is particularly fond of historical graphic novels and Big Nate.
Cycling: Cammie and Wayne love recreational cycling. You might see them riding around the Durham/Chapel Hill area. Share the road!