Where coffee and class mix: Midlothian’s Art Factory builds a marketplace for creativity, casual dining and community

Tal Thompson (above) opened Art Factory & Party Place in 2012 after her online face paint and cosmetics business needed brick and mortar space. In 2018, it expanded to 26,000 square feet, allowing space for art-minded children’s parties, art classes and various gatherings, with coffee and food included. ASH DANIEL

Art Factory & Party Place / Art & Coffee didn’t open as a place to have a cup of coffee, but eventually it made sense to serve some, so Tal Thompson did it.

By her own admission, as a disinterested student, the Israeli immigrant was kicked out of a mainstream school – then blossomed into one where she could pursue art. After his mandatory service in the Israeli army, Thompson found a job working with American servicemen and women at the USO in Haifa. There, she fell in love with an American biomedical engineer, and after 18 months of long-distance dating, moved to Georgia, married him, earned a degree in design from the Art Institute of Atlanta, and had two children. Thompson used her graphic design talents in corporate positions to work on freelance catalogs for clients such as Bloomingdale’s. To make money, she imported temporary tattoos from Israel and sold body art supplies to friends and neighbors from her kitchen table.

When the economy crashed in 2008, work in graphic design dried up and the Thompson family moved to Richmond, where her husband Cliff had found a job. She found work as a creative director for political strategists at a direct mail marketing firm, but after three years, she had had enough. By 2012, she was ready to market her products and was smart enough to create a website to sell them.

“I started working full-time growing that body art business … face paint and other makeup products mostly used by artists,” she says. Before long, the online operation was too big to venture out of their home. Thompson rented a small space in the Market Square Shopping Center. It was close to their home in Brandermill and a foray into brick and mortar sales.

Thompson was pleasantly surprised by the response. “What happens when you open a door to the community? The community is coming! And not only do they come, but they tell you what to do…” The biggest request was for Thompson to entertain kids with face paint and art at parties. This is how the Arts Factory began. “A party space allows you to host those events… I don’t have to run. They come to me. My stuff is here, right? Much easier.”

ASH DANIEL

ASH DANIEL

The community embraced the newcomers. Soon, Thompson also offered art classes and art workshops. In 2018, Tal decided to expand from 2,600 to 12,000 square meters, accommodating larger party rooms and studios, and a playground inside the entrance, where they would also sell coffee. Thompson thought the cafe would be a good way to attract mothers with preschoolers. The renovation lasted eight months. The Art Factory reopened in December 2019 – just before the global COVID-19 pandemic.

By the time Thompson was forced to close in the spring of 2020, online sales had also dried up. Who needed makeup and body paint when shows around the world were suspended? Thompson had paid for the store’s renovation out of pocket, so the operation was debt-free, but several dozen employees were on the payroll and rent was still being paid.

She was fearless. “In moments of crisis, there is also the birth of opportunity,” says Thompson. Starting with a friend’s samples, Thompson turned her staff into a balloon delivery service, serving up birthday parties for homebound boys and girls. She also reused her supply of body decorations. “Parents were still stuck at home with their kids, so we started putting art boxes together. Our face painting shop had all our brand name brushes. So it was like our factory brand task kit with all the step-by-step instructions and supplies.” PfP [Paycheck Protection Program] the loans helped cover payroll.

The business at Market Square Shopping Center in Midlothian operates daily from 7am to 6pm, with later hours at weekends.  ASH DANIEL

The business at Market Square Shopping Center in Midlothian operates daily from 7am to 6pm, with later hours at weekends. ASH DANIEL

In fact, opening the store was a bigger challenge. Art studios were not classified as an “essential” business by the government. Not even the playground that Thompson had inside the entrance. But the restaurants were. Moving the playground into a separate room allowed him to move the Art Factory and Party Place (now with Art and Coffee) into the food service category. “So our cafe is our baby COVID,” she explains. And it’s thriving.

Thompson attacked the coffee business with the same vigor he sells tattoos, makeup, art classes and balloons. She partnered with Guide coffee roasters for her supplies (and essential knowledge) and other locals for bread and cakes. “It started making money in the first month,” she says. “We added a rib to this crazy operation, so we capture our traffic. If we get 45 kids per camp, that’s 45 families coming in and out. And there’s still a totally cool community that just comes in for coffee and to sit with their laptop and do work.” The counter also has goods for sale, from jewelry to soap and of course, art. The store is open seven days a week, Monday to Friday from 07:00 to 18:00 and on weekends from 08:00 to 18:00.

Thompson credits her success to keeping a close eye on her clients. “My dad had a shoe store, so I grew up learning to sell as a kid. But what I learned here in the US is more the art of selling…sit down and observe our customers and see what they need and try to meet those needs. Everything we add has a great purpose. It either has to make sense as part of our process or it has to make sense as it serves the community.”

Art Factory & Party Place / Art and Coffee is located at 4810 Market Square Lane. Phone: 804-716-5219. ¦

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