Making It: ACKC Cocoa Bar's Eric Nelson

A TASTY PALETTE: ACKC Cocoa Bar's Eric Nelson mixes art with chocolate.
A TASTY PALETTE: ACKC Cocoa Bar's Eric Nelson mixes art with chocolate. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Eric Nelson had what many Washingtonians would consider a dream job. As a lobbyist for the Telecommunications Industry Association, he got to travel the world helping American companies do business overseas, making $130,000 a year plus bonuses. "My job was really great," he says. "But it was mainly great because so many people wanted to trade places with me."

After about 15 years at TIA, "I began to think about really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," the 52-year-old Alexandria resident says, and he left lobbying to start exploring his artistic side. He experimented with painting, coming up with an unusual technique: using translucent acrylic paint on Mylar -- yes, the stuff balloons are made out of.

Eric started selling his paintings in galleries in Washington and several other cities, but he soon became dissatisfied with that arrangement. "I was spending too much time marketing my work to people who weren't very enthusiastic about my work, and it wasn't very profitable." What he needed, he decided, was to open up his own venue for showing his artwork, where he could keep 100 percent of the sales. Being pragmatic, he determined that he also needed to sell something else that would lure customers and complement his art. So, in July 2006, he opened Artfully Chocolate in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, funding the $30,000 in start-up costs himself. Though Artfully Chocolate broke even, Eric soon realized that if he ever wanted to make money, he needed a bigger business. One of his local chocolate suppliers, Rob Kingsbury, also was considering expansion, and "it kind of was a bit of spontaneous combustion."

In December 2007, Eric and Rob opened an art gallery/chocolate store with what was, at that time, the first cocoa bar in Washington. They shared the $70,000 in startup costs. The Logan Circle store, named ACKC Cocoa Bar (the letters stand for Artfully Chocolate/Kingsbury Chocolate) gives off a high-energy vibe, with its red and gold walls and Eric's colorful artwork and hand-painted tabletops.

Eric closed Artfully Chocolate in April 2008, and he and Rob opened a second, smaller ACKC in Del Ray last June, with its $30,000 in start-up expenses coming partly from sales from the first ACKC. (In 2007, Eric and his life partner, Edward Hart, opened a stationery and greeting card store, Artfully Paper, in Alexandria which also sells Eric's artwork.) Eric, who has funded the store openings with savings and home equity, has yet to recoup any of his investment. But the shops are all self-supporting -- the D.C. store has sales of $30,000 a month -- and Eric and Rob just recently started paying themselves annual salaries of about $40,000 each.

"I went into these businesses without knowing anything about them," Eric acknowledges, and he's had some tough on-the-job training. For example, he and Rob hadn't foreseen the drop-off in sales a cocoa bar would have in the summer; they have since introduced frozen versions of their drinks and added ice cream. But Eric is happy with how his art is being received: He has sold about 90 works in 21/2 years. "I never really wanted to be a starving artist," Eric says, but "I never had a lavish lifestyle, and I'm perfectly happy leading a modest life and satisfying people in their desire for good art and chocolate."

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