An Artsy Approach to Finding the Sweet Spot

Life is much more than a box of chocolates for Eric Nelson, the owner and purveyor of Artfully Chocolate in Alexandria, Va.

Inside Artfully Chocolate in Alexandria, Va.

He opened his store in the city's Del Ray neighborhood last year, creating a space where he and his domestic partner, orchid enthusiast Edward Hart, tie together a passion for art, chocolate and orchids.

"I decided to turn my dream into a more central focus in my life," said Nelson, who creates artwork using translucent acrylics and Mylar. They grace the shop's walls with bright pops of color, many of them in the shape of flowers. The mix of art, orchids, bon-bons and sugared fruit slices and candy crayons is an eclectic feast for the eyes.

"My art is not just a business, it's fulfilling a dream," Nelson said, sounding a note similar to that heard from many small business owners. "I'm all about colors, form and style. I had a great job, but it wasn't touching the core inside me." He was a telecommunications trade association executive for 20 years and before that spent about 10 years in government.

Like most small businesses, there have been growing pains and, at the start, a big direction change.

Nelson's first business idea didn't involve chocolate, it was simply to open a gallery. "Being an artist there's a constant tension between producing and marketing," he said, adding that a gallery often will take 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of a piece of artwork.

His plan was to create a "mini Torpedo Factory," modeled after Alexandria's famous art co-op that houses galleries and studio space. He also had considered adding a sushi bar. He chose a vacant building on Alexandria's Mt. Vernon Ave. and went through a rigorous process to select nine artists to participate in the project. He also spent weeks conducting a parking study for the city.

"I spent $40,000 of my money on engineering studies and fees along with lawyer fees," he said, only to find that the building he had set his sights on, a former dry cleaners, had a big environmental problem. An engineer Nelson hired discovered that contamination from the dry cleaning operation had leeched underground beyond the building's property line.

"The liability would be too enormous for me," Nelson said, and he was in a business relationship with someone whose purchase of the building depended on a successful clean-up of the site.

Marrying art with chocolates seems to be paying off now for Nelson, at least when it comes to finding buyers for his art. In the three years before opening the shop, he sold 20 to 25 pieces of his art. But since opening the store in July 2006, he's sold 40 pieces.

Although the store "does fine," according to Nelson, "it doesn't provide me with the income I need to expand." So Nelson turned to friend Rob Kingsbury, who owns a chocolate store in Old Town, Alexandria and supplies Nelson with additional confection inventory for Artfully Chocolate. Kingsbury needed additional capacity, and since Nelson wanted to expand, "we complimented each other's needs," said Nelson.

The Kingsbury connection prompted a joint venture -- this summer they are opening Artfully Chocolate featuring Kingsbury Confections in the burgeoning U St. corridor in Washington, D.C. It will be the area's first cocoa cafe, serving creative chocolate drinks at 1529 14th St. NW.

Nelson also is opening a new store in Alexandria -- Artfully Paper, which will sell cards, stationery and other paper goods along with pre-boxed chocolates in a cross-promotional effort between his stores.

"I went through a lot," Nelson said. "But the silver lining was that I really became connected to the community. That's been immense and it's brought me to where I am today."

Summary: Finding the perfect location often isn't that simple. Make sure you consider not just the physical location on a street, but issues like environmental hazards and parking. Eric Nelson had to reconsider his plans to open an art gallery co-op in a former dry cleaners when hazardous waste couldn't be cleaned up affordably and efficiently. He bounced back from that with the opening of his chocolate and art gallery, Artfully Chocolate in Alexandria, Va., where he grew his inventory by partnering with another small confectioners located in Alexandria's Old Town neighborhood.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 10, 2007; 6:00 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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Great writeup and thank you very much for focusing on a blog dedicated for small business.


Posted by: Kiran | July 10, 2007 9:47 AM

Interesting how the store owner combined what I consider totally unrelated passions and products. I'm curious to see how it fits together and will definitely swing by the U Street location.

Posted by: Colleen McPhee | July 10, 2007 10:37 PM

I was most interested in the parnering aspect of the story. Is this something entrepreneurs/small business owners usually do? Is this a strategy many should pursue? It seems like one could forge a stronger business relationship with another small business and in a larger sense, raise all boats as it were.

Posted by: Alexandrian | July 11, 2007 9:07 AM

This is really interesting: using the combination of what I would consider totally separate (passions and) products to sell both. I'm also curious - can you tell more about how Nelson's experience connected him to the community, and how that's paid off for him?

Posted by: Colleen Mahar-Piersma | July 11, 2007 9:57 AM

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