Mothers sometimes have a hard time letting go when it comes to their children. Heartstrings don’t easily snap.
But for Barbara Given — “Barb,” as everyone in the Jackson Ward neighborhood knows her — the time was right.
Given, who opened Jackson Ward’s Stoplight Gelato Cafe in July 2016, has passed the torch on her beloved bistro. Its new owners are Mike Wilbert and Caitlin Kilcoin, Jackson Ward neighbors, soon-to-be newlyweds and Stoplight regulars who recognized from their very first visit that this little shop on a narrow side street has a special knack for building a sense of community, one customer at a time.
It’s a bittersweet change for Given, who opened Stoplight on her 81st birthday, but one that ensures her son’s legacy — the reason Stoplight exists — lives on.
On a recent evening, as the working stoplight inside the cafe flashed above them, Wilbert, Kilcoin and Given talked about the future of the cafe at 405 Brook Road. Given beamed, happy to share that her recent move to a retirement community — she calls it “summer camp” — has done wonders for her social calendar.
She reported that her companion dog, Lola, and her cat, Michael Jackson, have acclimated nicely, and she’s taken aback at the number of visitors who stop in to see her. Many are customers who’ve become like extended family.
She used to live upstairs from the cafe, in an apartment built for her by her son, Bryce Given.
Stoplight was supposed to be something they shared, but he’d never see it. He died of cancer on Easter day in 2015, six months after it returned when they thought it was in remission. They were in the process of turning an old feed and grain store into a shop of some kind, though after her son’s death, Given said she wasn’t sure she could finish what he started. She persevered, however, thanks to a community that rallied around their shared vision.
A framed picture of smiling, happy Bryce Given holding Lola hangs on the cafe’s back wall, a sweet reminder of a life ended too soon.
Wilbert said he and Kilcoin were frequent customers from the beginning, living minutes away on Clay Street. They told Given early on that they’d be interested in taking over Stoplight when and if the time came for her to move on. They’d gently remind her of their offer every six months or so, Wilbert joked, and there were a few “false starts,” when Given thought she was ready, then pulled back.
However, a health scare in late November last year was the final straw, Given said.
“I realized my body was telling me to stop,” Given said. She had already closed the shop to redo the floors and some furniture. Like many of Stoplight’s customers, Given said she had “become fond” of Wilbert and Kilcoin. So while there had been other offers to buy the shop, none made her feel secure that it would remain as she and her son had envisioned.
The private, off-market sale took place in March. The deal included Given’s apartment, which is now Wilbert and Kilcoin’s home.
“Our whole pitch to Barb was that we were going to maintain the shop as-is, with the sense of community, with the original design,” he said, and most importantly, “keeping the integrity and values Barb brought in.”
While the overall cafe and its popular selection of gelato and sorbet will remain, Wilbert and Kilcoin, who work full time outside of the cafe, said they’re going to update the menu to include pizzas and more lunch and breakfast options. Stoplight, which is currently open from 3 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 1 to 10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, will roll out daily breakfast and lunch hours in the coming weeks as the menu expands.
They’ve also added beer and wine and are working to build up the small wholesale gelato business that Given started.
“Everything I’ve heard so far is very exciting,” Given said.
Given’s daughter, Bethany Stranick, moved to Richmond more than two years ago from Delaware to help her mother with the cafe. While she knows it was hard on Given to sell Stoplight, Stranick said she’s grateful Wilbert and Kilcoin have taken over.
“If [the cafe] was open, she felt like she had to be there,” Stranick said about Given. “I saw how hard she was working.”
It’s a relief to her that her mother can simply enjoy life now.
“It’s nice for me to think that on a Saturday night at 6 o’clock, she can just be ... relaxing,” she said, and “not tied to that cafe.”
Wilbert said Given still has her key to the cafe and can come and go as she pleases.
“She has sweat equity in the deal,” he said. “If Barb tells us to do something, we do it.”
Given said she’s going to do her best to “keep my nose out of it,” but admits that her role as “quality control” remains in effect. That, and head gelato taster.
“We fell in love with the store itself and also Barb, and the story,” said Wilbert, explaining that they’re not agents of change, but rather “stewards of the mission.”
“We appreciate Barb being with us throughout the whole transition,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without her.”