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LOCAL LEADER/Eric Nelson - An artful lobbyist turned chocolate entrepreneur

Posted on Dec 10,2008
Filed Under Local Leaders , Community,
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photo by John Arundel

By JOHN ARUNDEL
Managing Editor

 
Eric Nelson is now 52 and rues the two decades of slaying traffic back-ups to inch downtown to his job as a trade association executive.
 
While he once commanded a high-powered lobbying job which took him to 70 countries and into the marble-halled corridors of power on Capitol Hill, these days he's content to composing the mosaic artwork which graces the walls of his two shops in Del Ray, Artfully Paper and Artfully Chocolate/Kingsbury Confections.
 

photos by John Arundel

Nelson still wears his liberal politics on his sleave. As a lobbyist who worked in what he described as a highly politically-charged and polarizing environment of the George W. Bush era, he said he found the experience as a Washington democratic lobbyist "draconian."
 
"It was a horrible time," said Nelson last week, sipping a cup of his own special brew of "Obama Hot Chocolate," consisting of peppermint, milk chocolate, whipped cream and candy cane. "He was always taking names. If you were not a Republican, you could not get the time of day with anyone in the administration. The whole way of business in Washington became painful it was so partisan.
 
So after turning 45, Nelson turned a career leaf and pursued his "true calling" as an artist.
 
He soon found that selling his beautiful mosaics to galleries in New York and Palm Beach was not a rewarding experience either, with galleries insisting on 50-50 splits of his handiwork. "The experience was not pleasant," he recalled. "The galleries I called on were often not friendly or receptive."
 
The son of a retired defense analyst who's lived in the area since the age of seven, Nelson chose a different tact, pursuing a venue for his artwork in Del Ray. Not a gallery, mind you, but a combined restaurant, art studio and martini bar. It would appropriately be called "Art Out Loud," because Nelson is not one to mince words.  "It was to be like a mini version of the Torpedo Factory, but with good food and martinis," he said.
 
But after two years and $40,000 spent in legal fees in pursuing a Special Use Permit from the City, Nelson threw in the towel on the concept. "It was like a baptism by fire with city procedures," he said. "The people at City Hall implementing them are very nice, but the processes themselves are a deterrent."
 
So it was on to Plan B for Nelson, this time a high-end specialty chocolatier tucked behind St. Elmo's Coffee Pub in Del Ray, which opened in July, 2006. The place was described as opulent, with beautifully tempered chocolate and the translucent acrylics of Nelson’s paintings. “I’ve touched a nerve,” Nelson explained at the time to food writer Amanda Lenk. “Del Ray loves chocolate.”

photos by John Arundel

With Cheesetique across the street and now a chocolate shop, Nelson had brought a sense of "high fat heaven" to Del Ray, a customer told Lenk, who went on to describe his first location as: "Rich reds and bright yellows, hanging screens showcasing Nelson’s art and a profusion of orchids for sale, all make Artfully Chocolate feel a touch like Eden moments before the fall...Chocolate has always belonged to an almost post-lapserian world, and the artisan chocolatiers who are represented at Artfully Chocolate seem to understand the beauty and danger of temptation."

Nelson then met Old Town specialty confectioner Rob Kingsbury and decided to merge their businesses. Kingsbury specialized in rich fudges from Tennessee and jellied fruit slices, which Lenk described as "eliciting a child-like joy."

"Anything that is so dense with bright color must taste good; this is the logic behind cool-aid and fruit roll-ups," Lenk wrote at the time. "The fruit flavors found in these thin slices of lightly chewy candy are all grown up. They are ultra sweet and some a little sour, yes, but also delightfully full of flavor. Some things taste better because they look good, and these half-smiles of colorful fruit deliver."

Eventually the entreprenurial duo expanded their business into the District, closing their respective stores in Old Town and Del Ray and opening Artfully Chocolate/Kingsbury Chocolates at a spot near Logan Circle. ACKC is now headquartered there.

"We're building a small empire," Nelson said, only half-jokingly. "Rob and I feed off each other's talents. He handles the nuts and bolts of making chocolate and I handle the marketing and business side of things."

Nelson's artistic skills are in making and showcasing his own art, the glazed, transluscent acrylics on mylar which grace his two Del Ray shops, Artfully Paper and Artfully Chocolate, located side-by-side at 2003 Mount Vernon Avenue.

Lenk described his artwork as resembling "high-end confectionary creations...the artwork is graphic and has a glazed, shining effect. Orchids and other flowers are predominant subjects, and a smaller piece featuring a darkly reflected bridge draped in florid growth represents Nelson’s most recent work."

photos by John Arundel

But although an artist, Nelson is first and foremost a businessman. He's constantly concocting new ways of capitalizing on the consumer's sweet tooth. These include classes in chocolate tasting to a newly-launched cocoa bar which serves up hot chocolate in the winter and ice cream in the summer.
"The hot cocoa drinks you can now get as a chocolate dessert," he said. "We take chocolate ice cream and blend it with our signature flavors."

For the chocolate divas of the world, Nelson and Kingsbury have come up with signature chocolate drinks named after the female greats of cinema. Think Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Liz Taylor. Even Charo; all crumbled or blended into a hot drink or ice cream.  

"We have a diverse revenue stream," said Nelson, who said that in two years he's sold about 80 pieces of his artwork, at prices ranging from $500 to $800.  "I feel so at home here because Del Ray is such a progressive place to do business."

Soon, Nelson and Kingsbury may further expand their ACKC footprint into other progressive places, like Chevy Chase or Bethesda. The new shops might sell their signature chocolates, mosaic artwork, papery products and special blends of hot cocoa and ice cream.

Of course the quirkier items would also be on the shelves. Things like "Instant Rehab" breath spray, "Supermodel Meal in a Box," and "Love Guns" which catapult cupids up to 15 feet. There might also be a whole line of Obama-related products, which his partner Edward Hart, a PTO examiner and part-time store buyer, is eagerly hoping to market.

"The place has got some great buzz," said Anita Carter, who lives in Del Ray, and was shopping at Artfully Paper last week. "We can drive to Target but why not come into a Del Ray shop like this and find something unusual."

Nelson could not agree more. "We're trying to appeal to a fun, new different experience for those with an eclectic taste," he said. "It's a high-energy, colorful feeling."



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