Charlottesville: Where LGBT-Owned Business Can Boom

By, Amy-Sarah Marshall

A French café and bakery. A burger joint in Belmont.

No, they don’t have much in common on their menus. And you probably couldn’t produce two more radically different restaurant atmospheres. Yet these Charlottesville eateries do share something significant: they both opened last year, and each is owned by a married couple who happen to be of the same sex.

So, two businesses does not a boom make. But for a town that has boasted just one LGBT-owned nightspot for most of the last decade and has only had a Pride festival since 2012, the story reflects an undeniable cultural and economic shift taking place in this small city. No longer are gay business owners needing to stay closeted to thrive. Nor is targeting LGBT customers a tactic reserved for nightclubs. In fact, all signs point to Charlottesville as being a place where LGBT-owned businesses can boom—openly, in full daylight, during breakfast and lunch.

 Open for Business

When Jason Becton and Patrick Evans opened their business together, they were also open about the fact that they are married.

“I have been out since 16 or 17. I’ve also been out in my employment and I did not want to go back in the closet,” says Jason.

So he didn’t. Before MarieBette Café & Bakery—named after their two daughters—officially launched, Jason and Patrick made no secret about their relationship and family in an interview with a local paper, Cville Weekly. “We haven’t had any [negative] repercussions,” Jason says. “Being out business owners has become part of our business identity.”

Based on a model popular in more urban places like D.C. and Boston, the establishment has taken off, offering baked goods, breakfast, and lunch.

A Surprise Welcome

The reception was not what Jason expected. They had compelling reasons to relocate: wanting their daughters to be closer to grandparents (Patrick grew up in North Garden) and to have a more “bucolic” setting than their New York home offered. But as a gay couple, coming to Virginia felt like a big risk.

“It’s been a nice surprise for me. All the trepidation I had moving to a purple state has been unfounded. I’m much more comfortable than I thought I would ever be here, especially in Charlottesville. It’s a really welcoming place and the community seems supportive of new businesses generally.”

Certainly when they first arrived in June 2014, legal challenges abounded. The couple married in Connecticut in 2009 and because of marriage equality coming to New York, had been able to share employer benefits and file taxes together. Moving to Virginia felt like “stepping back in time and having to start over.”

Four months later, the couple experienced another happy surprise: marriage equality came to Virginia.

MarieBette Owners and Kids.jpeg

A Restaurant for a Cause

Amy Benson and Melinda Stargell, or “Moose” as she’s called, actually met at the restaurant they now own and run together.

Both Charlottesville natives, Amy was the restaurant’s accountant and Moose the cook. They knew the down-home restaurant’s regulars and the area. The sense of specialness and familiarity made the idea of buying the place and running it together almost obvious.

It didn’t occur to them that anyone would object.

Amy didn’t even think about “being a lesbian-owned business … until one of the previous owners mentioned to a few of the patrons and some of the previous staff that we would never make it because people here don't like ‘our kind.’ I was floored.”

Sure, the clientele included people not typically seen in marriage equality rallies: hunters still in camo, suited ladies lunching after church, blue collar workers grabbing coffee. But Amy had never felt uncomfortable here before. Amy started wondering if the restaurant would work, if people would stop coming in once she and Moose took over. “Then I thought, if that is the case, then we don't want THOSE people’s business anyway.”

Making it Happen

Amy and Moose bought the business and opened July 5, 2014, serving hearty breakfasts, specialty hamburgers, and creative sandwiches.

As it turned out, the place was a hit from the start.

Renamed Moose’s by the Creek, the restaurant features a lot of—you guessed it—moose. There’s moose photos, toys, art, and antlers. On your first visit, you’ll be invited to get “moosed” by having your photo taken with the antlers. (Warning: The photos do go on Facebook!)

The theme has caught on. “People love it. Moose’s is a place that sticks in your mind. We have customers who bring us moose things all the time.”

And instead of losing customers, Amy and Moose have gained them.

Giving Back

Almost as soon as Moose’s opened, Amy and Moose held a fundraiser. “We decided to use the restaurant as a platform to give back to the community,” Amy explains.

Recently, Moose’s supported a benefit concert at the historic Paramount Theater. Betty, a band made famous for performing the soundtrack to The L Word, took to the stage and raised funds for organizations that address domestic violence.

Amy is overjoyed. “Never did I imagine having to rent the Paramount and having a full-blown show.”

Business is thriving, their energy seems boundless. Do Amy and Moose ever experience discomfort from patrons because they are in a same-sex relationship?

Amy says no. “People genuinely don't care about our sexual orientation. What they care about is good food, good service, and a great environment. And that is what we give them. “

Moose’s by the Creek is open M-F, 6am- 3pm; Sat-Sun, 7am-3pm. Find Moose’s on Facebook and get “moosed!”

Amy-Sarah Marshall is an Online Content Strategist at UVA Health System and the President of the Charlottesville Pride Community Network.

Justin Ayars