Smile Politely

Art Mart’s owners open up about the shop’s origin, pumpkin cookies, and effects from the pandemic

This year, Art Mart celebrated 63 years in Champaign-Urbana, and this March, it is the five year anniversary of Art Mart’s move to their location on Prospect. Over Zoom, I sat down with Brian and Courtney McKay, who co-own Art Mart with Courtney’s mother Linda Ballard, to talk about the origin story of Art Mart and how the pandemic affected their business.

At their kitchen island, the McKays opened up about Art Mart’s past, how the bank refused to give a loan to the women owners. The McKays joked about once popular items from Art Mart’s past like rubber chicken purses and gave more details about their famous croissants, pumpkin cookies, toy department, wine, and offering indoor dining in a pandemic.

Photo provided by Brian McKay.

Smile Politely: Hello! So great to be with you guys today, virtually. Can you introduce yourselves?

Courtney McKay: I’m Courtney McKay.

Brian McKay: I’m Brian McKay, and we are the owners of Art Mart.

Photo provided by Art Mart.

SP: Awesome. Can we go all the way back, at the beginning of Art Mart? Tell me about the start of Art Mart.

Courtney McKay: So Art Mart actually started out in the late 1950s as an art gallery, hence the name. It was on Green Street between First and Wright Street. My mom worked there. It was an art gallery, and it also had gifts, mood rings, paper dresses, candles, dinnerware. It was still very eclectic then, too. 

The lady that owned it moved to Wisconsin, and my mom bought it from them with my aunt, who was a nursery school teacher. She quit the school and they did this together. Then it moved. They decided to move to Lincoln Square because that was where all the action was. So we moved everything over in my uncle’s car, in the back of my dad’s truck, and I was probably about ten then. That’s where we added the food department and the toy department.

In 2007, my aunt and uncle retired, and Brian and I — and Brian’s sister Cathy Stickels started working. Then we were at Lincoln Square until 2015, and then the space came available where we are now. And we walked in the door, saw the little departments, and we knew it was perfect. We moved, and we’ve loved the new space. And my mom still works everyday.

SP: Where does she work in the store?

Courtney McKay: She does all the corporate gifts and the majority of grocery buying. She loves going to the fancy food show. Of course, last year it was cancelled. They postponed it to later this year, and she already made her reservations to go. She hasn’t let anything stop her.

Brian McKay: One of my favorite things about it: when Linda and Carol Ann were buying the business from the woman who originally started it, they went to the bank to get a loan, and the bank would not loan to a woman. Their husbands, who were not even involved in the business at all, had to take out the loan for them to buy Art Mart. That’s how Art Mart is the second oldest female owned business in the state of Illinois.

SP: Wow.

Courtney McKay: They also said at the time, the guy who was giving the loan said, “I might as well take this money to the race track and bet it away.” We always laugh at that.

SP: What a wild time. Can you talk about what it was like when Art Mart added the toy and food departments?

Courtney McKay: I’m not really sure how my mom and my aunt got to be into trying new stuff. They grew up on a farm in Southern Illinois in a town with about 2,500 people, but my grandmother had a catering business. She always took them to St. Louis and exposed them to a lot. My dad was an architect, also from a teeny tiny town, and he was always interested in architecture and design. So from the get-go, they always wanted to bring stuff to Champaign-Urbana from bigger towns, things that nobody else had here. They were really into Scandanavian design and modern art.

Then the food department came. It was in the 1980s when sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese were big. Martha Stewart was all the rage. Julia Child was huge, and they loved her.

Brian McKay: Back before Americans used olive oil.

Courtney McKay: Nobody in town, no grocery store had any of that.

Brian McKay: Nobody had French cheeses. Specialty coffee. That didn’t exist. You could get Folger’s. That was it.

Courtney McKay: Of course, it’s come a long way. At the time, we probably, for a good 10-15 years, brought all this stuff for the first time to Champaign. There was a little tea shop that had some nice cheeses, but for the most part, people were not bringing in nice pastas or olive oil or baking croissants.

Brian McKay: We had the first espresso machine in Champaign-Urbana.

Photo provided by Brian McKay.

Courtney McKay: They loved to bring things to Champaign. But because they’re from a small town, they also had the fudge machine, you know? They were still approachable, so just as much as they liked really nice stuff, they liked fun, good stuff like chocolate chip cookies.

That was the food part, and then the toys started growing because my cousin had four boys at the time, and my aunt kept buying toys for them and putting things in that she thought they might like. Then, the space in a U-shape at Lincoln Square became available, so we thought we’d move some toys in, just temporarily, just for Christmastime, and now we have a whole toy department. Brian’s sister Cathy is the toy buyer, and she does a great job.

SP: That was a big change when you added those departments, and then when you moved to this new location on Prospect in 2015. How did you feel like the store changed?

Courtney McKay: We did a lot of research. We knew the Lincoln Square location had served us well but was at its end. We walked into the building on Prospect, and we could just see all the departments; it was just perfect. We had seating in the cafe. We could do a whole wine department. We could start from scratch. At our Lincoln Square location, we kind of piecemealed together some stuff, and when we wanted to add something —

Brian McKay: We had to shove other things apart.

Courtney McKay: We wanted to start with a clean slate and add onto that. Build all the departments we wanted to. I knew we wanted to do carry out food, and we didn’t really have a space to do that. A huge open air cheese case. Before that, we used to cut the cheeses to order. We wanted grab-and-go cases. We also still wanted to be in a neighborhood; that was important to us.

Photo by Sam Logan.

Brian McKay: We wanted our own stand-alone building. We didn’t want to have neighbors right next to us. We wanted to be a destination.

Courtney McKay: Yes, people would walk or bike over to the Lincoln Square location. Now, whole families ride their bikes over on Saturdays. Indian Acres Swim Club is right there, so kids come over in the summer to get ice cream. It’s just a real neighborhood place. The location just gave us so many opportunities to do what we wanted to do.

We are thankful for all our customers that moved over with us — and all the new customers. We have more space, so we like to do more events. We do charity wine tastings. We’re really big on children’s charities: C-U Schools Foundation and Make a Wish Foundation, that’s our big thing. This space also allows for events like that.

We are a place where you can come with your kids or come for a cup of coffee. We have ladies who would come for the whole day. They would have breakfast, then go shopping, and then have lunch. It’s fun to have that environment.

SP: Your latest big change was 2020. A lot of businesses had big changes and impacts from the pandemic. How did it affect Art Mart?

Brian McKay: We just hit pause right around spring break last year. We closed for five days and tried to figure out what we were going to do. We didn’t know what it was going to be like. We didn’t think it was going to be a whole year. Everyone was thinking this would be two or three weeks, and everyone will be back to school and back to normal. So, when we re-opened, it was before everything shut down for the state; we had a crazy few days.

People were coming in and buying cases of wine. People were stocking up and buying cheeses. Everyone thought, I can’t leave my house for the next three weeks. I’m buying everything I need to buy for the next three weeks. It was nuts. We shortened our hours. We had a skeleton crew.

Courtney McKay: We were open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., curbside and delivery. The phone was ringing off the hooks. We couldn’t keep up. Then it loosened up, and we were able to open again. We had shortened hours. Every step the state took to re-open, more people would come out. You could tell people, at the end of the summer, and people came in and they would say, “This is the first place I’ve been since March.” They felt safe coming. The older people, especially, come in.

I think we started packaging everything instead of salads in the deli case. People could come in and grab-and-go. It’s been hard to keep up. I hate to say people are eating their emotions, but I think they’re eating and drinking their emotions. It’s been insane. It’s been crazy for us. We’re grateful though. We’re happy people are receptive to the changes that we had to make, and we’re glad people feel safe coming into the store, asking for curbside, asking for delivery. We’ve been very, very lucky.

All restaurants have used the last year as a way to do a reset. They’ve had some down time. You have to find alternate ways to do stuff. Some of it is better, more efficient. Everyone in the food service has had it really hard, and we’ve had it a lot easier than most, but it’s opened up new and different ways to do stuff.

SP: That’s a positive perspective. Looking at all the history you have in this community, Art Mart has been a staple for 63 years. What ways do you think Art Mart has fostered that love from the community?

Brian McKay: One of the big things for us is listening to customers. What people are asking. People come in, and they may have studied overseas, and they’ll come in and ask, “Is this something you can get?” Or, “I studied in Paris for three years, and I want some French Brie. I miss Brie.”

So we’ll get things based on customers. Just making Art Mart a place of joy, making it a place where they can go and be somewhere else while still being home. Through customer service, Linda really set the precedent for customer service at Art Mart. Courtney and I have tried to carry that torch and hire people who take care of our customers. It’s a legacy that people don’t forget.

Courtney McKay: Some customers call and speak to certain employees. They’re calling for an order, but the employee will be on the phone for a half hour because people just want to chat — and that says a lot about our employees. They have made these customers their friends. They really engage with customers, not in a fake way, but our employees like customer service. I hope we give our employees a good place to work, and we appreciate them so much.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: That’s great. I want to tell you that I love your croissants. Do you have a favorite one? If you were a customer, what would you order?

Brian McKay: That’s like asking which child is our favorite. It’s too hard.

Courtney McKay: The ham and cheese croissant.

SP: That’s my favorite, too.

Courtney McKay: More people should try the almond croissant. It’s also my favorite. There are some die-hard followers. We use Marzipan almond.

Brian McKay: Ham and Swiss is my go to. I also love the chocolate croissants.

SP: I know people go nuts for pumpkin cookies in the fall. Are there any more seasonal items that people go wild for?

Courtney McKay: The pumpkin cookie is hard to beat.

Brian McKay: There’s nothing that rivals the pumpkin cookie.

Courtney McKay: We always laugh because we don’t know why we don’t make them all year round. It’s not like we can’t get pumpkin. The decorated sugar cookies at Christmas and decorated Easter cookies, those are very popular. The pumpkin, though, we sell about over 7,000 pumpkin cookies each year.

SP: It’s a classic.

Brian McKay: We used to do it where we had a contest. Whoever guessed the day of the first frost would get a dozen pumpkin cookies. We didn’t start making them until the first frost. One year, the first frost was in late October, so we had only three weeks of pumpkin cookies. People were going crazy wanting pumpkin cookies, so we decided September 1st would be a good starting date.

Courtney McKay: Our bakers would prefer the first frost.

Brian McKay: Ha, yeah, they don’t like making them.

SP: That’s so funny. Do the bakers like making croissants?

Courtney McKay: Oh yes, they do. Five or six people who know how to roll them. Three know how to make them. I like to make them, too. They’re always different, you know, with the temperature outside. It’s a bit challenging.

Brian McKay: It’s an art.

SP: I tried to make croissants, and it was horrible.

Brian McKay: I remember one time, Linda made the bakers throw away the croissants because they didn’t match what she wanted them to look like. Our goal is that if someone comes to town, maybe they only come once every five years, and every five years, they have a ham and Swiss croissant, then we want it to be the same croissant, even if it’s been five years. If they’re over proofed or flat, or if it’s not up to snuff, we’ll toss. You got to have a high standard.

Courtney McKay: At Thanksgiving, people come home for Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving weekend, that’s what people want to have. We always have to make lots of ham and Swiss croissants that weekend.

Photo by Sam Logan.

SP: Last year, I did an interview with Todd about wines. Can you talk about what it is like working with Todd? How’s C-U’s wine consumption?

Courtney McKay: He has such a great following, and he’s great to work with. I think our personalities match. He’s got a great sense of humor. He is so passionate. He was so worried about getting COVID. He said, “What if I lose my sense of smell? That would ruin me.”

Brian McKay: The whole staff has had their first shot. We get the second one next week.

Courtney McKay: Todd is always great. Actually, today I asked him for a bottle of wine, and he gave me one, and he said, “Do you remember this?” I said, “No.” He said, “I brought it over to your house. It was so good, and you don’t remember?”

Brian McKay: I love working with him. When Corkscrew announced they were closing, we had been carrying wine for probably two to three years before that, in fits and starts. It was tough. We wanted to add wine because people would be at the cheese case, and then ask if we had wine. People wanted to grab wine, so it was a natural thing for us to add. So we had a small selection, and when Corkscrew was closing, we had known Todd for awhile. I asked him, “What do you think of working at Art Mart?” He said, “I’ll think about it,” and I remember thinking, please, please, please. Then he called me and said, “Yeah.”

It was exciting because the wine department has really grown into — it’s become its own destination. We picked up a lot of new customers because of Todd’s following. A lot of people know Todd, so it was a good fit for us.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: Can you talk about what it’s like being open for indoor dining?

Courtney McKay: We’ve actually stayed at 25% for the cafe. I haven’t gotten it together to move the tables, so I would say they’re full a lot. A handful of customers have been unhappy that we’re allowing people to eat in, but you got to start somewhere. Everyone is following the rules.

I had to reprimand two people just on their computers and ask them to wear their masks. We are following the guidelines, but I think we have to start somewhere, and it’s got to get back to something. The tables are spaced far apart. There’s only 15 seats. I think it’s important for the customers, for our staff mentality, to try to get back into a little bit. So many people need this to survive.

Brian McKay: It’s a mental health thing.

SP: Totally. Speaking of mental health, what do you like to do when you’re not working?

Brian McKay: I ride bikes. All kinds of bikes. I’m an avid mountain biker, avid gravel rider, avid racer. I like to do a lot of things on bikes.

Courtney McKay: I am actually writing a cookbook, and so I am getting my grandmother’s recipes and all our family recipes and Art Mart recipes on my computer now. That’s been something in the works for a long time, but I’m making progress on it.

We also have two boys, 10 and 12, and they also keep us busy.

Brian McKay: Believe it or not, we also love to cook. We cook about every night.

SP: Very cool. What do you guys cook? What’s on the menu tonight?

Brian McKay: Leftover chili!

Courtney McKay: We love tacos. I love to do Julia Child recipes and try out new things. We have a pod, and we’ll cook for our neighbors. Our neighbors are good cooks, too.

Brian McKay: We might smoke some meat. We might do French roasted chicken or pork chops. We try a lot of new things.

Courtney McKay: Our other neighbors have a raclette machine. We supply the cheese, and we’ll do that. We bought stuff for fondue, but we haven’t made it yet.

Brian McKay: We also love boxed macaroni and cheese.

SP: What are your favorite places in town?

Brian McKay: I love Farren’s and Watson’s, probably two of my favorites. Bread Company, too.

Courtney McKay: Recently I love Suzu’s Bakery. Oh my gosh, that place is so great.

Brian McKay: I go to Old Time Meat & Deli to get our meat. We love to support the local businesses. I mean, we have to.

SP: We’ve talked a lot about where Art Mart has been, where do you see it going?

Brian McKay: That’s a tough question because obviously there are fads. Things that come and go. One thing that’s Art Mart has done is when fads die, we drop it and adopt something new. Try to keep up with what customers want. Customers generally are aware of what’s new and cool. We have to keep changing and some things we have to get rid of. It can be tough, too, when customers come in and say, “Remember when you sold Gladys Goose?” Well, Gladys Goose isn’t a thing anymore.

SP: What is a Gladys Goose?

Courtney McKay: It was a light up, three-foot goose lamp. We sold hundreds.

Brian McKay: And the chicken purses!

Courtney McKay: Oh, yes, the rubber chicken purses. That was a crazy fad.

Brian McKay: It’s the same thing for all departments. You carry things for a while, and then you have to move on. Those things start showing up at Target or Walmart, and we’re out of it. We have to be done with it and move onto something else. 

As far as where Art Mart is headed, it’s hard to say, but we’re not going anywhere. I don’t see any big changes. We’re not going to drop the toy department or the wine department. I don’t see anything like that. Just modifying and tweaking things.

Photo by Sam Logan.

Courtney McKay: I see a bigger trend in carryout food. I think that’s one of the biggest trends born from last year that will stay. People’s habits have changed in the last year, and it’s going to be hard to break the habits. We’ll probably add more carryout or do some pop-ups. Just doing new stuff, too.

SP: Is there anything else want to share with the Smile Politely readers?

Brian McKay: Thank you for the support over the last 63 years. It’s such a migrant town, and people might pop in 15 years later, and we’re still here. They’re happy to see us, and we’re happy to see them. 

Art Mart
1705 S Prospect Ave
M-Sa 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Su 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Top image by Alyssa Buckley.

Food + Drink Editor

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