As the four-way stoplight above her flashed red, then green, then yellow, over and over, Barbara Given dipped out dainty and large scoops alike of smooth hazelnut and salted peanut and dark chocolate gelati and icy sorbettos made from fresh strawberries and mangoes.
From the constant jingling of the bells on the door handles, it seems one of Jackson Ward’s newest businesses already has a loyal following in advance of its grand opening. Stoplight Gelato Café, at 405 Brook Road, officially opens with an open house on Sunday — Barbara’s 81st birthday.
But earlier in the month, the narrow café situated near Gallery 5 and ART180 tested the waters, serving up $5 lunch specials of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, plus espressos and lattes and cappuccinos. Most, however, came for the house specialty: homemade gelato, everything from pistachio and tiramisu and chocolate stout, made with Guinness, to vanilla bean and more.
On a hot and sticky afternoon last week, business was good.
The café was built on the dreams of Barbara and her son, Bryce Given, though he would never see their vision come to life.
Bryce died on Easter morning in 2015 after being diagnosed with two forms of aggressive cancer in September 2014. His death came before the café and its upstairs loft area were complete, however, and for several months after he died, Barbara put plans on hold.
But her Midwestern grit and determination ultimately pushed Barbara to finish the renovations with the help of her son’s friends, countless neighbors, college students and others who simply appeared in her life when she needed them the most. They painted walls, put in bookshelves, finished the wainscoting, stained doors and more.
Barbara jokes that she owes enough free gelato to so many people that it’s likely to be a few years before she sees a profit.
“But it’s about him,” she said quietly, referring to her son, Bryce. During a slow moment last week, she was sitting at the table closest to the cash register — close enough to get back to work should a customer arrive. Though she employs a staff of eight, Barbara works morning, noon and night. She paused as the tears came. “That’s why I do it.”
There’s a throwback charm to Stoplight Gelato Café, an inviting old-timey feel that starts and ends with Barbara. A newspaper photo of her hangs on the wall. It’s her at 15, standing in front of an ice cream shop where she worked in her Kansas hometown. She was interested in drawing cartoons back then, she said, and painted characters on the shop’s windows, which caught the interest of her local newspaper. Bryce, she said, was inspired by that photo to open a gelato shop.
The café’s name comes from the working stoplight that hangs from the ceiling, one of his finds.
Bryce and Barbara started work on the building in earnest in 2011. Bryce was a trim carpenter and also loved Volkswagen cars and buses. He owned a few, “all in various stages of disrepair, if you ask me,” Barbara said. He wanted an indoor space as a workshop, a place to tinker with his toys. He was also tired of carpentry, and wanted to open up a shop of some kind with his mother.
They found buildings in Petersburg and Richmond’s Manchester district, but neither worked out. The space on Brook Road, once a feed and grain store more than a century ago, was perfect.
Bryce had battled cancer in the past, and was in remission, or so he thought, Barbara said, when a lump was found in his stomach in September 2014. That cancer was aggressive. Doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving but offered up treatments in the hope of extending his life. Progress was coming along within the building, and he worked through fatigue to get the drywall up.
“He wanted to live,” Barbara said. “He had all these plans.” Known for his fun-loving spirit, Bryce asked nurses at the hospital for extra gowns and other items. When asked why, he told the nurses “I’m going to wear it for Halloween,’” Barbara said.
Cancer took his life six months after the diagnosis, at age 52. After he died, Barbara said she found his notebooks filled with musings on various business options: doughnut shops, coffee shops, a hot dog shop.
“We had no ideas what it would end up looking like,” Barbara said about the café. “I just bought stuff at auctions and hoped it would all fit together.”
A huge pier mirror from the hotel lobby of a bygone era looms on a wall behind the counter. Old-fashioned wooden crates are perched on a handmade shelf built into the wall. A large freezer display case holds the gelato and sorbetto for the day.
“One of the reasons I enjoy doing this so much is that it seems to make people happy,” Barbara said, then added about her son, “I think he’d be pleased.”
Stoplight’s customers are indeed pleased.
First-time customer Emily Brown sipped an affogato, a shot of hot espresso served over a scoop of cold gelato. She called the café cozy, and said she could see herself visiting before and after events around town at places such as Gallery 5 and elsewhere.
Nearby, repeat customer Tim Parker nibbled on a cone filled with salted peanut gelato. He said it’s nice to have a neighborhood place to go for coffee in the morning and “delicious” gelato whenever the urge strikes.
Many people are becoming invested in Jackson Ward, he said, and it’s because of businesses like Stoplight.
“People are looking for something to attach to, especially as this neighborhood changes,” Parker said.
Far from her former life in a condo in Old Town Alexandria, Barbara now lives above the café, in Bryce’s loft apartment. She shares the space with her service dog, Lola, and Bryce’s cat, Michael Jackson.
Bryce’s beer can collection — more than 1,500 cans — is stacked three deep on bookshelves along the loft’s walls. The cans seemed a more interesting fit in the space than books, Barbara quipped. An easel rests in one corner of the sitting area, a gift from Bryce to his mother, because he wanted her to take art lessons. Two photos sit on the easel, one of Bryce working on a motorcycle, and another of him and Barbara from a visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington.
Some of his clothes still hang in the oversized walk-in closet.
Two restaurant booths from a restaurant in Delaware — auction deals — line the walls near the kitchen and act as bookends for a jukebox. On the tables are old photos of Bryce and the building in its various stages of renovation.
She was proudly showing off her son’s touches around the apartment when a loud bellow from below jerked Barbara back from her memories. Her gelato chef, Juan Harmon, was flying solo in the shop. She hustled to the door leading downstairs, Lola on her heels.
Barbara strapped Lola into her service dog vest and they threaded their way through to the kitchen. Barbara pushed through the swinging doors leading to the shop, where a line of customers waited.
Barbara stopped to put on a pair of gloves, then greeted a familiar face with a smile. The stoplight above her ticked from red to green.