Since 1974, Circus Family Restaurant has been serving up burgers, fries — and a seriously good peach milkshake.
by Susanna Klingenberg | photography by Ben McKeown
In 1974, Raleigh was a city looking forward. Families were welcoming soldiers home from Vietnam, and the second-ever woman had just been elected to City Council.
Meanwhile, on Wake Forest Road, just off Capital Boulevard, a Dairy Queen had quietly reinvented itself as Circus Family Restaurant.
“After the turmoil and upheaval of the 1960s, Raleighites entered the new decade with a desire for normalcy,” says Ernest Dollar of the City of Raleigh Museum. “Even in its name, the Circus restaurant offered a distraction from the past and reflected the optimism of the future.”
Since 1974, plenty has changed in our city — but little has changed at Circus. They’ve spent 47 years sidestepping trends and sticking to what they do best: dishing up local charm and a seriously good peach milkshake.
Owner Glenn Mitchell, who began working there as an employee in 1986, says the flourishing food scene downtown has made him double down on Circus’ niche: classic burgers, hot dogs, fries, and ice-cream desserts. “Our menu is basically the menu we’ve had since 1974,” says Mitchell. After a pause: “Well, we added grilled chicken. You know, for healthy eaters.”
If the unmoving menu, circus theme (painted elephants and big-top colors), and retro décor (original booths, tables, and floors) feel a bit out of touch with the here and now, that’s OK with Mitchell. “When you taste something you haven’t tasted in a long time, it just takes you back. That’s what customers say: our food takes them back.” He adds with a resolute nod: “We keep it simple and keep it good.”
It hasn’t always been simple for Circus Family Restaurant. In June of 2006, the business was rocked by a shocking event: the murder of a cleaning contractor, who was working at the restaurant late one night. Such an incident would be quite a blow for any establishment, especially one built on a family-friendly atmosphere.
Mitchell admits that his first reaction was to downplay the tragedy. He initially discouraged his employees from talking to customers about the murder and shied away from press. But sweeping it under the rug unsettled him: it didn’t feel brave, nor did it honor the legacy of the innocent victim. For that man’s family, after all, the loss was much greater than the bottom line.
After talking to the victim’s family, Mitchell discovered that he had been involved in caring for the unhoused in Johnston County, offering what little he had to those who had even less. It was then that Mitchell knew what he had to do: give back to the people this man had cared for. The idea for a free turkey dinner began to take shape, and it turned into an annual event.
The man’s family has said he would have loved the way Mitchell turned a tragic event into a way to give back; they work alongside Circus staffers, customers, and other volunteers to prepare and serve the meal. At first, it was a relatively small operation. But as word got out — first through Mitchell’s church, then to the wider community — donations of time and resources started pouring in. South Raleigh Civitan member Robin Snyder, whose group has participated from the early days, says they all look forward to the camaraderie of preparing the meal: “Every year, a group from Civitan peels and chops 300 pounds of sweet potatoes. It’s a long day, but the spirit there is really something.”
On Thanksgiving Day, hordes of people traditionally descend on the tiny restaurant, chatting, eating, and giving thanks. The crowd includes unhoused people, older folks, locals with no family in town, and neighbors who have simply woven it into their tradition. In 2019, they served 1,300 plates, with even more going out to nursing homes, shelters, and bus stops. Last year, they had to cancel the event, but they plan to revive it as soon as they can.
Snyder says the energy Mitchell pours into the feast every year is simply an outpouring of his values: “He is very humble. He doesn’t do it for any glory or recognition. He does it because his heart tells him to.”
The community support that Circus Family Restaurant has earned over the years is what’s kept them afloat through the pandemic. “It’s been an interesting year,” says Mitchell, “But we never closed down, and our customers? Our customers just kept showing up.”
While Raleigh will continue to change around Circus Family Restaurant, it plans to remain a bastion of the past. And that’s okay with Mitchell — the spirit of gratitude that’s served up with every meal is timeless.