Kelly Thompson on life as a commercial artist, running a landmark coffee bar and investing in happiness.
Kelly Thompson is hard to define. On a typical day, he can be found serving coffee behind the bar of the historic, downtown landmark coffee house he started 25 years ago. He appears to be in his element there, chatting with the patrons that have gone to Urban Stampede to talk art, study and write in quiet or expound upon the interesting topics of the day with others. Or, to just escape in an electronic screen. He moves around the brewing equipment and the tables and the people sitting at the historic booths as a natural, as if he’s never cared to do anything else. Nothing—at least the doing part—could be further from the truth.
When he’s not at Urban, Thompson could be manning an open house, showing his clients the unrealized potential of a new-to-them home or checking on a possible new income property. In addition to being the founder of the region’s longest running coffee house, he is a realtor and property investor.
In between coffee duties and working with realty clients, Thompson might also be found designing the latest round of T-shirts or logos for one of his many clients that utilize Ink Inc., for printing and graphics. Located next door to Urban, Thompson has been operating a screen printing business he co-founded nearly three decades ago.
Ask him what he truly is, what his title should really be, and his response would be quick and unequivocal. Although he is certainly a proud and successful business owner, property investor and graphic designer, Thompson is an artist. He paints. He believes in reimagining the objects many in the region adore—horizons broken up by farmhouses, fishing lures, iconic buildings—through paint, symmetrical lines, clear images and an easy to decipher personal style. As is typical of Thompson, however, don’t pin the classic notion of what an artist is, how they work or approach the act, to him. Sure, he has a painting studio in his house, but he does his best work in the dining room next to the kitchen. When its painting season and his supplies are pulled out and ready for use scattered throughout the dining room, he has the ability to work and bring his vision to life, and then, most importantly, to walk away only to go back and figure out what he is going to do next.
We sat down with Thompson in one of his famous darkwood booths that line one wall of his landmark coffee house. Fresh-brewed coffee in hand, we freely discussed a loose list of questions. We talked about big ideas, like what art really is, and other big topics, like how to run your own business, in addition to how he successfully manages all of his ventures. He is also a very proud father of three that he has spent many nights cooking for in his kitchen, mac and cheese on the stove, his kids at the table laughing and talking to him while he listened with a paint brush in hand.
At the booth, Thompson’s answers all came with personal experiences to back up his comments. The conversation over coffee revealed that he is as interesting and unique as the region has to offer. And, that the best talks we can hope for are the ones with interesting people like Thompson, who can share their experiences in a way that inspires us to take what they’ve learned and try to apply it in some way to our own lives.
The Entrepreneurial Artist Invests In Himself
Thompson grew up in the greater Grand Forks region, left after college and then returned to start a screen printing and graphic design business called Ink Inc. His longtime business partner, Patti Eider, has worked with and allowed him to run and lead the creative elements of all of his ventures since the early days. In 1993, he acquired the space where Urban Stampede resides to this day. “At the time, the coffee industry was still in its infancy,” he says. The goal was to create a destination for coffee, much like local breweries attempt to do today.
“We wanted a space where patrons could converse with baristas and other patrons,” he says. Since its inception, Urban has outlasted more than 10 other coffee-linked locations in the area, an attribute Thompson links to the atmosphere of Urban. “We’ve had so many friendships develop here. People get married after meeting here,” he says. “Our longevity is because people form relationships at Urban.”
Thompson says that Urban brings out a parade of humanity every day the doors are open. He has never had an issue finding employees. Over the years, more than 100 people have worked for Thompson. The goal is to keep the space fresh with new ideas and creativity. To do that, Thompson taps into the abilities of his employees, regardless of their age. Opening additional Ubran-esque locations is always brought up to Thompson, and although he has helped others start similar ventures in other cities, he has always been hesitant to branch out in his hometown. “At some point, it's not all about the money. We already have enough going on,” he says.
Like his coffee house, Ink Inc., has been successfully operating since the day it opened. The technology used to print the shirts hasn’t changed in 30 years, but the styles certainly have. That is where Thompson comes in. As a professional graphic artist, he helps clients find their desired design. “It’s the creative approach and ability we have to bring an idea to life that has made us successful,” he says.
As a realtor and investment property owner, Thompson first got into the business by buying an income property with his then-wife. After learning they were good at finding value in overlooked properties and managing the process, they kept going. Today, Thompson is also an active realtor. As you might imagine, he’s been involved with some of the most unique and interesting properties in the city.
At the age of 40, Thompson fully committed to painting commercially. He quickly found out the job paid well if done right. He produced a full body of work and was able to display the art at a client’s home. “They took all of their art down in this huge home and put up my work. It was a huge success and I sold a number of paintings,” he says. Since that first in-home gallery showing, he’s produced several other art lines and displayed work in other settings, including professional art galleries throughout the region. “I always had a passion for painting, but I never thought I had the time or ability. I always had a business mind.” Never losing that affinity, Thompson now paints images with the client in mind. His paintings often feature imagery or scenes that people of the region are familiar with and have become drawn too. “It doesn’t feel impressive,” he says of his many accomplishments, in painting or other avenues. “It is just what I enjoy.” G
// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here
PHOTOS BY: MANSTROMS PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2018