A Mother, a Son, and a Gelato Shop

Barbara Given is a fighter. At 81, she has grit and determination beyond measure.

Standing confidently behind the counter of Stoplight Gelato Café, a business she launched in Jackson Ward earlier this year, she’s clearly proud. Her business is buzzing. Customers are happy. And there are over 30 unique flavors of homemade gelato in front of her – Rose, Irish Crème, Earl Grey, to name a few.

But she fights back a tear when she explains what it took to open her café, a business that was once a dream for her son, Bryce, a master trim carpenter, who was battling cancer for the second time. Bryce passed away last year, on Easter morning, before the shop could open. Usually when this kind of thing happens people would be focused on the funeral expenses or the like, but Bryce seemed to have his focus elsewhere while he was still alive.

“He was incredibly optimistic. Even when the doctors told him he had 50/50 chance of survival, his only concern was to bargain with the nurses so that he could keep his hospital scrubs for next year’s Halloween costume,” says Given. “He just refused to see the writing on the wall, and when they assigned him a hospice bed, he bluntly refused to be put in long-term care because there was so much he had to get done before opening his gelato café.”

After 35 years as a professor at George Mason University, Given saw Stoplight Gelato Café as an opportunity to truly get to know her son as an adult. It was to be their first joint venture together. A time to reconnect.

Together, the mother and son sought out the perfect location for Stoplight Gelato, and together they brought the building to life. “He wanted everything to be perfect,” she recalls. “He had no intention of ever leaving Jackson Ward.”

She took out a second mortgage on her Maryland home to help Bryce focus all of his time and energy on his concept for the café. Because of Bryce’s relentless attention to craftsmanship, however, things took much longer than anticipated. Once they had more funds, they began looking at commercial premises they could buy, as well as purchasing things like money counters and electric mixers. It’s surprising how much work goes into setting up a cafe!

During the grueling preparation – for that grand opening he’d never attend – Bryce spent days jack-hammering and restoring the concrete floor, replacing historic windows, rigging electricity and plumbing, and installing insulation and drywall. Now they’ve made their business and it’s operating as it should, Barbara is able to decrease the pricing of her utilities by looking into Business Energy offers, so her monthly expenditure on bills is cheaper than normal.

“Like typical business partners, we’d get into arguments, and sometimes he would get mad with me. And I knew it was only because he was frustrated about how long everything was taking,” Given recalls. “He was too overprotective of me. It drove him crazy every time I’d try to climb up a ladder.”

After Bryce passed away, his mother pushed on. Today, the shop, which the mother and son created out of love, gives that love back to its customers. Five years in the making, the setting is intimate and clearly built by people who care. It’s old fashioned and feels like home. There are sundaes and floats, soft-serve ice cream and sodas, milkshakes and smoothies. And of course, lots of gelato. From the ceiling hangs an old stoplight that Bryce found and knew would be perfect for the café. And hanging on the back wall is a newspaper clipping of Barbara Given at 15 standing in front of an ice cream shop where she once worked.

“Bryce felt that was a good sign,” she says. “So we stuck with it. Maybe he knew it would make me happy.”

CategoriesEat Local, General, Play

Joe is a Richmond based entrepreneur, writer, and community organizer.