From the moment Mike Wilbert and fiancee Caitlin Kilcoin stepped foot in the Stoplight Gelato Cafe about two years ago, they knew its owner was on to something special.
“It was truly a neighborhood gathering place,” Wilbert said. “Everyone was welcoming and the space was inviting … it was a great experience.”
Stoplight founder Barbara Given had just launched her venture at 405 Brook Road in Jackson Ward.
‘They were so kind,” Given said of her first encounter with the couple. “They certainly didn’t waste any time expressing their support for the café … and their intentions.”
Wilbert and Kilcoin wanted to purchase the café, but Given wasn’t an easy sell at the time.
Stoplight was more than five years in the making for her – a journey that began when Given and her late son Bryce purchased the 4,300-square-foot, 106-year-old building in 2010.
Bryce was a carpenter who specialized in trim work around Richmond. He also was a skilled mechanic who fixed up old Volkswagens, and planned to use part of the Brook Road property – originally a feed and grain store in the early 20th century – as a garage to pursue his interest in cars. Bryce also started work on the building’s second floor to transform the former workspace into an apartment.
He passed away from cancer at 52 in March 2015, in the midst of an extensive renovation of the building.
Pushing through the pain of losing her son, Given completed the building renovation and opened Stoplight during summer 2016.
“I just wasn’t ready at that time,” Given said of entertaining Wilbert and Kilcoin’s offer. “I could handle it; I was maintaining and running the business … selling it all just wasn’t an option for me because I was doing this in memory of my son.”
The couple understood, with Wilbert sending Given a greeting card with a stoplight on the cover — taking the liberty to draw a smile just below the green light of the image.
“I just wanted her to know that we were happy she was a part of the neighborhood,” Wilbert said. ‘We wanted to leave the door open. We weren’t trying to force anything.”
Change of heart
It was a couple of days after Thanksgiving 2018 when Given, 83, felt her health waning.
But it was during a tour group’s stop at the cafe in late November when Given realized she needed to slow down.
“Someone in the tour had asked me about how the cat got its name ‘Michael Jackson,’” Given said, referring to her pet that was a regular fixture in the store. “It’s one of my favorite stories to tell because Bryce is the one who adopted and named the cat. I could tell the story in my sleep.”
Except the words to tell the story didn’t roll off her tongue that day and she found it difficult to talk.
“Thank goodness the tour guide knew the story and took over for me,” Given said. “I rushed to the back to collect my thoughts.”
Given closed Stoplight in December to give herself and the staff a break — hoping to reopen in the spring.
But she realized it was time to part ways with Stoplight and called Wilbert to tell him she was ready to sell it all and move into a senior living facility in Chesterfield County.
“It was a hard decision because the people that worked for me, and frequent customers, became like family to me,” Given said. “I wanted to keep going, but my body just wouldn’t let me.”
New life, same concept
Wilbert and Kilcoin purchased the cafe last week for an undisclosed amount.
As part of the acquisition, they now own the intellectual property, furniture and equipment of the business, along with the two-story Brook Road building.
They plan to reopen the cafe, using the Stoplight name, by May 3 – just in time for the neighborhood’s monthly First Friday event.
Despite being first-time restaurant owners, Kilcoin said don’t expect much to change at Stoplight.
“We’re still going to be serving much of what was already here, including the different styles of sorbetos, vegan and gluten-free gelato, and sandwiches, with a few adds of our own,” he said. “What people enjoyed about Stoplight before is going to stay intact.”
Wilbert added that they plan to add small pizzas to the menu, and are applying for an ABC license to sell beer and wine, potentially using some in some of the gelatos.
Much of the former staff has been hired back, including Paul Winston, who created several of the gelato flavors. He’ll oversee operations at the shop.
Wilbert and Kilcoin said they are identifying local vendors to supply coffee, breads, fruits and vegetables to use at Stoplight. They also plan to work with third-party delivery services and to fire up a new website for Stoplight, maintaining a heavy social media presence through posts on Facebook and Instagram.
To further increase revenue beyond the brick-and-mortar location, Wilbert said Stoplight will be looking to wholesale its gelatos to area restaurants; and is hoping to add a traveling gelato cart to hit up festivals and events around the area.
“The goal is to make Stoplight more visible in the community,” Wilbert said. “That’s always been a goal of Barb’s, and is something we want to execute.”
Wilbert, who works full time with Apple Hospitality REIT, a downtown hotel investment firm, and Kilcoin, who works at EAB’s Richmond division, have limited experience with restaurant operations.
Also, they’re getting married in two months in New York.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” Kilcoin said. “But we’re going to make it work.”
Given said she’s confident Stoplight is in the right hands and that she’ll make periodic appearances there to interact with long-time customers as well as help Wilbert and Kilcoin navigate the terrain.
“This was the right decision for me, and I know that they will do a great job,” Given said. “It’s really not goodbye as much as it is learning to take care of myself … that’s what Bryce would have wanted.”