Stir Crazy Café Re-Made in Seven Days

by Charles McGuigan

While most of Richmond celebrated Independence Day with fireworks and cookouts, the staff of Stir Crazy Café, including its managing partners, Claire McGowan and Franklin Massie, worked almost round-the-clock to completely redo this favorite haunt of Northsiders, and kindred spirits from other sections of town. They finished this daunting re-creation in exactly the same amount of time it took God to make the universe. But it didn’t start in a void, in nothingness.

It began with a deep-cleaning.

Co-owner Franklin Massie during the remake.

From the Friday before the Fourth, after the shop closed for the day, the employees returned nightly to start the process of renovation.  “Each night we were cleaning and had everybody come in for a pizza party, which was fun,” says Franklin, who became a managing partner with Claire earlier this year. “We were still open, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but after closing, we were all busy.”

Busy as a hive of bees, and just as well-organized.

Mike Dunigan measures twice.

Then, on Sunday night, after Stir Crazy finally closed for the holiday, craftsman Mike Dunigan, who owns Pleasantly Plumb, began working his carpentry magic on the cabinetry, which includes a seamless expansion of the counter, allowing for an uninterrupted flow from where orders are placed to where they are picked up, and then plied with sweeteners and other ingredients at the creamer bar.

“Basically, what we’ve done is get rid of the pastry cases,” Franklin says. “What we wanted to do is create a nice flow through the café, and to do that we had Mike (Dunigan) come in and build the new counters to match the pre-existing counters for a fluid motion across it.”

The counters are faced with the clean lines of bead board, and the countertops are the creation of Emily Hake, Franklin’s fiancée (the couple are to be married in November), who works as the scenic designer for Virginia Rep.  Emily, who studied fine arts in college, faux-marbleized the counter top and sealed it all with a thick, clear Epoxy resin. The result is truly spectacular; the new surface looks for all the world like polished stone, and seems to be just as durable, and, I’m guessing, a helluva lot cheaper than granite.

Along with the countertops and cabinetry, the Stir Crazy team painted all walls and woodwork throughout the café.  “The walls are painted a white with a slight grayish tint,” says Franklin. “The trim work is in a color called Nor’easter, a bluish-ray.”

In combination, the colors seem to visually enlarge and brighten the space. What’s more, everything pops with these hues, including the narrative murals of Ed Trask, and the whimsical chalk art of Ted Sanderson.

Both the ceiling and the floor will remain unchanged, the last two interior design vestiges of the original Stir Crazy which was opened thirteen years ago by Jerry Bistline.

As Claire and Franklin considered the makeover they decided to refurnish the cafe. Gone are some of the larger chairs and several of the tables. “We added some farm tables,” Claire says. “One five-foot farm table in the front right window. And in the back where the murals are there is a seven-foot farm table. They help create a more communal aspect.” And there are a few more pieces to come.


Claire McGowan and Stephanie Yarber.

For weeks, the managing partners scoured the aisles of Class and Trash in Scott’s Addition, and circa in Charlottesville. “We found exactly what we needed,” says Claire. “We’ve also added a few beautiful rugs.”

The night before the official reopening, Claire and Franklin were burning post-midnight oil by the gallon. Stephen Bloe stuck it out till midnight, and when the morning staff arrived, they found the owners still working away. Franklin and Claire finally left at eight that morning for some well-earned rest.

Four years ago this past April when she purchased Stir Crazy, Claire made a lot of changes. She refined the existing cafe and created an inviting space that drew customers in with the promise of coffee, conversation, food and comfort—a place where they could linger.

These new changes further that vision. “The vibe has always been that this space is an extension of our customers’ living rooms,” Claire says. “We want everyone to feel comfortable when they walk in. Comfort is the biggest thing. We want everyone to feel at home here.”

And they do, and they keep coming back.

One of the primary keys to Stir Crazy’s success is its staff. I’ve noticed this often, and I’m a regular. For one thing, it’s consistent. Some of the employees—seventeen of them in all—have been part of the café for years. They work together as a unit, seem to be able to read one another’s minds as they take and prepare orders, and each one of them is accommodating with the customers.  “One of the biggest reasons this place feels so comfortable is because of the staff,” says Franklin.

“They are definitely a big part of that,” Claire says.

Ian McQuary and Catherine McGuigan behind the new counter.

In addition to the décor changes, Stir Crazy will also be tweaking its menu items. “We want to redo a lot of recipes so it’s going to take a lot of time experimenting,” says Franklin. “We want to see what sandwiches are the best-selling, and how we make it more efficient for people trying to get their food and to get what they want.” To that end, Stir Crazy may well introduce a build-your-own sandwich item on the menu.

“We will always keep popular sandwiches like the Nottoway and the Greycourt and the tuna melt,” Claire says. “We’re just going to improve it, and add some more seasonal things.”

“We also want to boost our smoothies,” Franklin adds.

Stephen Bloe at the new countertop.

In the not-too-distant future, Stir Crazy will also be marketing and packaging its own product line to be called Stir, which will offer unique flavorings for tea that will use all natural ingredients.

“And our catering business under Stephaine (Yarber) continues to grow,” says Claire.

A couple years back, Claire McGowan said this of Stir Crazy Café:  “I love it that people can walk in the door, and we can start making their coffees even before they get to the register. I like that people can come here with their kids. Last week we had some mothers—four or five of them—meet with their newborn babies. I really like the family aspect of Stir Crazy, and it’s eclectic. We have a mix of every kind of person here, and that’s something that’s hard to find in Richmond, or anywhere else. We have all cultures. We definitely want to keep it that way. Stir Crazy’s for everyone.”

It still is.

Stir Crazy Café

Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm; Sat & Sun, 7:30am-5pm

4015 MacArthur Avenue


About CharlesM 294 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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