By Charles McGuigan
Early Saturday morning, a line reaches from the counter all the way back to the front door. Mainly, the orders are for coffee, a few iced teas, breakfast wraps, yogurt parfaits, fruit-strewn oatmeal, bagels, lattes and so on. The din of human conversation is as reassuring as the rote of surface, it rises and falls and scatters and mingles with the music that plays far in the background. Senator Tim Kaine is in line beside me. He orders a large cup of coffee, a super-charge of caffeine, before driving up to Washington to vote against the U.S. Supreme Court nominee. At the farm table near the front door, a group of regulars sits, and one of them hands out square chunks of a sheet cake dedicated to Claire McGowan, the former owner of Stir Crazy Café.
For the third time over the past fourteen years, Stir Crazy Cafe has changed hands, and each time, this neighborhood institution seems to become better than it had been in a former incarnation. Back in 2003, Jerry Bistline first rented the space on MacArthur Avenue. At that time, 4015 was something of a graveyard for old pinball machines and video games; a couple of the storefront windows were actually boarded up with plywood. Within the year, Jerry had completed an extreme makeover of the property, and Stir Crazy was born.
About five years ago, Claire McGowan bought the business from Jerry and began making changes almost immediately. Old furniture subtracted, new furniture added. There was a paint job and a new espresso machine.
“Because you need a good espresso machine to make good coffee,” says Claire, who sits at the farm table in Stir Crazy’s rear. Next to her is the new owner, Vickie Hall.
“Initially, I just came in and tried to learn the people and the place,” Claire says. “We upgraded the menu with more freshness and quality and some seasonal stuff.”
At the time, Claire knew very little about running a coffee shop, but she did know a thing or two about customer service. “That was the only experience I had coming into Stir Crazy,” Claire says. “I learned customer service working in my mom’s company, and my dad’s company.
Claire was fortunate in those early months to have retained Ian McQuary. “He trained me,” she says. “He knew everything about the business.”
Over the next two years she began building a staff that now works together like a family. And that’s not an exaggeration. Today the staff includes Ian, Noah Sheaffer, Art Fedarchuk, Scott Schmidt, Stephanie Yarber, Kai Dos Santos, Catherine and Charles McGuigan, Teddy Schick, Isabel Scarpino, Raye Strawder, Beth Houlihan, Hillary Kay, Dante Jbarah, Matt Muncy and Jackson Hall.
In time, Claire added beaded wainscoting along two walls, rough-hewn board-and-batten from floor to ceiling along another wall, a long bar made of old doors and architectural accoutrement that runs almost the entire length of a third wll.
Later came the remarkable murals by Ed Trask, including massive panels in the rear sitting area just outside the conference room behind the communal table where we now sit.
Two years ago, Stephanie Yarber joined the staff. She is a jack of all trades, and a master of many. Along with overseeing special events and tending to social media, Stephanie has also expanded Stir Crazy’s catering services. “Stephanie has incredible follow through and organizational and people skills,” says Claire. “She was able to take ideas and make them into concrete reality.”
And then last year, Claire brought on Franklin Massie as general manager. He was a whirlwind of activity at all times, and meshed perfectly with the staff. Last July, in just four days, as part of an “aesthetic revamping”, the staff completely redid the interior, including a new counter and countertop, which was hand-painted by Franklin’s wife, Emily, who worked as a scenic designer for Virginia Rep. “Each night we were cleaning and had everybody come in for a pizza party, which was fun,” said Franklin, at the time. “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.”
Franklin also helped with the follow through of things like the build-your-own menu,” says Claire. “He’s made a huge difference.”
Not long ago, Claire decided to sell Stir Crazy. “I was really young when I bought it, just twenty-three,” she says. “I didn’t know if wanted to sign on for another five or ten years. I cried every day for a while.”
Fortunately, Claire knew Vickie Hall.
“Claire had brought the idea up a few time over the past year or so, and I kind of chuckled when she said, ‘Hey, do you want to buy a coffee shop?’” says Vickie
But then things changed. The online retailer she worked for closed up shop, and Vickie realized she was looking for a complete change. “I didn’t want to sit behind a desk again,” she says. “I wanted to be around people and do customer service, and I’ve loved this coffee shop for years and it was just a good fit at this time in my life.”
Vickie has a long history in the food industry. “I’ve been in the food business here and there over the years,” she says. “I have a lot of catering and food experience, and actually twenty years ago I had my own catering business for a short time. It was called Creative Tastes.” And her husband, Tre, along with a business partner, own a catering company called Anything Goes.
Add to that her years of management experience, and the coffee shop was a natural fit. The transition from one owner to the other has been seamless. Vickie meshed well with the enthusiastic staff at Stir Crazy.
“Everybody works together as a family,” Vickie says. “Everybody seems to care about each other, and they have a good time. If you’re happy where you’re working, you’re going to want to stay.”
Vickie’s already making some changes. “We’ll be doing a little bit more of a seasonal menu, and beef up the catering,” she says. “And moving forward we’ll be doing more with the music nights, and become more involved with community events. We just did Ocktoberfest at Benedictine.”
Eventually there may be another Stir Crazy. “A second location, or a mobile coffee business,” says Vickie.
And Vickie wants to always preserve the vibe at Stir Crazy.
“This place has become an extension of other people’s families,” Claire says. “This place ended up being a safe spot, a comfortable place for a lot of people going through rough times in other parts of their lives.”
“That’s one of the things I love about these two community tables,” says Vickie. “Anyone can sit there and start up a conversation and everyone is pleasant. They talk to another. They don’t mind sharing the table.”
Later, at the community table out front, a woman with a three-month old infant in a baby carrier sits across from me, and we begin talking. Turns out she and her husband live on Church Hill, but she loves visiting Stir Crazy. Her name is April and her husband is a professor of psychology at VCU. April is doing graduate work in non-profits. She likes the feel of Stir Crazy, and she introduces her very young son, whose name is Atlas.
And I am reminded of what Vickie Hall had said to me a little earlier: “I feel like she (Claire) entrusted me with her baby and I want to help that baby continue to grow. I’m incredibly happy to be here.”
Stir Crazy Café
Mon-Fri, 7am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 7:30am-5pm
4015 MacArthur Avenue
Richmond, VA 23227