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Grata Café, built on gratitude, filling void left by Elmo’s

By Monica Chen

CARRBORO – Inside Carr Mill Mall on Tuesday, Jay Radford was busy getting his new restaurant ready.

Full of energy and optimism, Radford walked here and there in the former Elmo’s Diner space, gathering materials, telling construction workers what he wants done, enlisting the help of one of his sons. Other business owners in Carr Mill and employees stop by to chat with him.

Grata Café can open as soon as in the next couple of weeks, Radford said, as soon as the permits are approved.

Would he like to sit down for this interview? “Oh, no. If I sit down, I’ll fall asleep,” Radford said.

Radford is a man who likes to keep moving. Over the course of his life so far, the 52-year-old has built a multitude of experiences and skills. They are all informing his approach to Grata Café.

His work style is rooted in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A native of Washington, D.C., he worked as a page at the Capitol Building when he was young. (“When I saw what happened at the Capitol [on Jan. 6], I just couldn’t believe it. I mean that building is sacred.”) From 1995 to 2000, he worked at Planet Hollywood in D.C., working his way up from dishwasher to becoming the general manager. After that, “like everyone else, I went into a dot-com,” he said.

At Grata Café, Radford is putting his capacity for work, to work. “We leap, then we look,” Radford said.

First, the Elmo’s Diner kitchen equipment was overhauled. The equipment was old and the walk-in freezer was leaking, he said. He added a station for making pasta. Second, his message to employees is: “I’m not here to tell you how to do your job. I hired you to do it, and I trust you can do it. You can figure it out yourself, or we can figure it out together.”

Third, inclusion is in every part of Grata. Being good to the LGBTQ community is important to Radford. “Grata” is Italian for “gratitude.” And the restaurant’s motto is “Eat with gratitude.”

“I came out of the pandemic with a lot of gratitude, with the idea that there is a need for the community to come together again,” he said.

Radford is frank about his philosophy. “I don’t care who you are. This is a safe space no matter who you are,” he said, “unless you are a racist or a bigot.”

“I picture all the colors and creeds and genders to come together. We have a community table,” he added. “I think if all the businesses have the same attitude, we’d all heal a little faster as a country.”  

Inclusion also extends to his workers. The staff is paid $18 an hour wage. Any tips left on tables will go into a bucket, with the total going to a nonprofit of the staff’s choice at the end of every month.

“I’ve hired an amazing team – at their core, kind and helpful,” Radford said.

His staff also will have a say in the menu. Everyone will get a turn at producing a recipe for a weekly special.

Not surprisingly, all of Grata’s positions already have been filled.

A staff meeting took place later on Tuesday morning. The new hires gathered around the community table, excitedly chatting.

Janaris Camarillo said she found the job opening on Indeed.com. “We pitched in a lot of ideas building the menu. It’s going to have a little personality from each of us. So it’s going to be very special,” she said.

The restaurant is also generating buzz elsewhere in Carr Mill Mall. Joseph Keasler, who works at the Oasis at Carr Mill Coffee Shop, said he is glad Grata Café will be opening soon. Elmo’s closing was a blow to the entire mall.

“We lost traffic,” he said. “There was a lot of waiting traffic on the weekends.” Keasler was also glad Grata will be serving breakfast in addition to lunch. He used to get breakfast at Elmo’s.

Grata’s breakfast, in addition to Italian fare, will also feature pancakes, waffles, omelets and biscuits and gravy. The 86-seat restaurant will be open 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday to Sunday.

This is also a homecoming of sorts for Radford. His grandmother was Italian.

In the past year, Radford became – well, obsessed – with Italian food, falling down a hole of watching food shows on Netflix, such as “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” and testing recipes, and researching parts of Italy like Liguria. When he was young, he would cook for hundreds of classmates.

Grata’s menu will be on a chalk board. “The menu will never be final,” Radford said.

“We make everything fresh. Our pasta, our menu, everything,” he added.

Price points are under $20, with most items at $12 and under. There is a “build your own pasta” part of the menu, as well as Chicken Piccata, Chicken Parmigiana – all $12. The menu will feature Radford’s own recipe for vegan meatballs. He has planted an herb garden in the outdoor patio space. Basil and mint will line the windowsills.

From Radford’s tastes and interests, the menu also has a sizable charcuterie section, with a traditional charcuterie, a vegan option, and a “build your own” from a multitude of ingredients. Grata will also have a beer and wine menu, and a summer sangria, Radford said, his eyes lighting up. He’s also teaming up with locally owned Takeout Central, to offer a delivery of ready to heat meals weekly.

Carrboro residents have been anxiously awaiting for a new business to take the Elmo’s space after the diner closed in March 2020 during COVID-19. At first, residents wondered when the restaurant would reopen. But lockdown orders came and went, and still the restaurant remained closed.  

In September, Elmo’s ownership announced they were closing on Facebook. However, they seemed to leave the possibility open that they would return. “We have not sold to anyone, so we do not know the future of the space,” they wrote. But earlier this year, it was apparent they were gone.

Elmo’s had been open for 29 years when it closed. Word around the mall is that Carrboro residents were so desperate for Elmo’s to reopen that during lockdown, notes were being left on the doors, asking if they needed help with fundraising, with starting a GoFundMe, anything they needed.

The owners left everything behind: Plates, forks, everything in the kitchen.

Townsend Bertram & Co. at Carr Mill also closed last year. Ceremony Salon in Carrboro, owned by Radford’s wife, Rachel, will be moving into the space.

Radford moved to Carrboro from D.C. in 2005, right to Broad Street. Since then, he has become a complete Chapel Hill-Carrboroan. He started the “Not So Normal 5K” races in Carrboro, that raised money for a variety of nonprofits. For years, he was known as the dad behind the “Moms in the Chapel Hill NC” blog. Radford had taken over from the original blogger in 2013. He has since left it and passed it on to another blogger.

Radford is very familiar with Carrboro’s personality by now. When he ordered heavy equipment for the kitchen, it was left behind the building and someone stole it within two days. Radford was mostly amused.

“I was impressed. I mean that takes ingenuity!” he said.

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