A Rich Mix
When Claire McGowan took over ownership of Stir Crazy Cafe on the evening of April 22, 2013 she already had a firm foundation that had been carefully laid years ago by Jerry Bistline. And as any good business person knows, you don’t fix something that’s not broken. But you do perfect it, which is what Claire has done, and continues to do.
We’re sitting in the conference room at Stir Crazy which is now painted a pale but vibrant peach. Claire also repainted the rest of the space here in yellows and greens. “I wanted something warm and welcoming, and bright and homey,” she says. “We have great window space so we get wonderful light and I wanted something that took that natural light and kept it going inside.” With her natural eye for color, she achieved the effect. It’s an inviting space that draws you in with a promise of coffee, conversation, food and comfort. It’s a place where you can linger.
Two nights before she closed on the business, Claire had a nightmare. “I dreamt I couldn’t see over the register to see the customers,” she says. “I was very nervous.”
Claire stands just under five feet tall and is dressed in jeans and a simple black top. One of the things she started almost as soon as she took the business over is Naked Music, held the fourth Thursday night of every month. It features local musicians. Susan Greenbaum, who like Claire is exactly four feet and eleven and a half inches tall, played at Stir Crazy not long ago. “She’s a great artist and just the sweetest person,” says Claire. “We bonded.”
These nights of local music have become very popular and fill a void left in the neighborhood with the closing of Shenanigans. And now that Claire has an ABC license in hand, Stir Crazy will offer wine and beer to accompany the music. Eventually, she hopes to have live music at Stir Crazy at least once a week. “And we’re going to always keep it Stir Crazy classy,” she says.
Claire liked the menu of wraps and sandwiches that Stir Crazy offered, but she wanted to tweak them a bit. “We’ve been working on the quality of the food a little bit,” she says. “So the sandwiches are the same but the quality of the meat and the cheese is better. We’re trying to get a fresher product. “
For instance, the scones are baked fresh everymorning, not the night before. And the quiches are made on-site. “Most of our stuff here is baked in-house,” says Claire. “And as much of it as possible is made from scratch.” They also expanded the menu with items like scone bread pudding, which uses yesterday’s scones to turn out a fresh product today.
“We’re trying to get as much local produce and other products as we can,” Claire says. “I’m big on supporting local businesses. We have to support each other.”
Right now she’s investigating local bakeries for additional products. “I’m looking for a bakery that would deliver their fresh product every morning,” says Claire. “We would bake our own scones and cookies and muffins, but we would have really cool deserts baked locally.” She mentions pies and eclairs. “And donuts,” she adds. “People think coffee and donuts. We want the best fresh made donuts there are. We want to bring it all home to the people in the North Side.”
Though Stir Crazy continues to purchase much of its coffee and tea from Rostov’s, they recently added espresso that is roasted at Black Hand. “We’re really, really happy with them,” Claire says. At some point, Stir Crazy may roast its own coffee. “But that’s way down the road,” says Claire. Just on the horizon, though, is the addition of a wider selection of teas. “Rostov’s has so many available,” Claire says. “And we’re going to be adding more varieties.”
Claire seems to have a natural knack for business, a sort of entrepreneurial sixth sense, and it may well be genetic in origin. Her parents, Dale Call and Mike McGowan, started a screen printing business some 30 years ago that grew by leaps and bounds into a wholesale T-shirt company called Virginia T’s, which operates out of Petersburg. About ten years ago, her father got out of that business and opened a custom hats company called Bretmore Headwear.
This innate business sense dated back at least a generation before that. Claire’s grandfather on her mother’s side ran Jet Furniture in Petersburg for many years. Despite all this heritage in business, Claire had selected a different career.
She studied broadcast communications at the University of Miami and then switched to psychology. Her plan was to return to Richmond and study neo-natal nursing at VCU-MCV. She took a few classes and then decided she was burnt out, at least for the time, on school. So she took a year off, working for her father.
And then she heard about the possible sale of Stir Crazy. One of her mother’s friends, who lives in Bellevue, told Claire’s mother about the coffee shop. “This was the mother of one of my best friends growing up and I spent a lot of time in North Side so I was familiar with the area,” says Claire.
She visited Stir Crazy and at once fell in love with the place. ”It’s something I was always interested in,” Claire says. “A bakery and a coffee shop. I love to bake. I called and left a message and at the time it didn’t sound like it was going to be a viable option. I got a call back a couple weeks later and we started ironing out an agreement.”
Jerry, the founder of Stir Crazy, is still there, helping Claire through the transition. And the staff who have always given the shop its unique persona are still on hand.
We leave the conference room and move toward the counter for a cup of coffee. Jerry’s behind the counter putting together an order and one of the employees is pouring coffee as soon as a patron enters the door.
“This place has such a local feel,” says the new owner, Claire McGowan. “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.”
Stir Crazy Café
Mon, Tues 6:30-5; Wed- Fri 6:30-6; Sat-Sun 730-5
4015 MacArthur Avenue