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The Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation’s annual gala this month may have been canceled, but the honors still stand. For their charitable contributions and hiring of Champaign and Urbana school graduates, Brian and Courtney McKay were recognized as distinguished alumni. The Art Mart owners opened up to staff writer Alexandria Kobryn about their soft spot for children’s charities and how their lives and business model have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Where did you two graduate from?

Brian: I went to Centennial, Class of ‘92.

Courtney: Urbana ‘87.

What is a favorite school memory?

Brian: I think just the connections I made with friends, lifelong friendships with people that I met in high school that turned into adult connections within the community. That’s probably my favorite thing that I got out of my time at Centennial.

Courtney: Ditto! Especially now, twofold I’d say, we have connections with organizations like the CU Schools Foundation, the grade schools, middle schools, and we focus our charities on children’s organizations, and just growing up here we’ve gotten to know a lot of the people that run those and so we have a personal connection to a lot of the organizations we donate to. Right now, I have a group text with people in Chicago and New York that own restaurants, and we’re all kind of going through this together and figuring it out, and that’s probably one of the most important relationships I have right now.

How long have you been with Art Mart?

Brian: Courtney’s family started the business, it was founded in 1958, and so Courtney’s been involved literally since she was born. And then she ran Mirabelle bakery, was involved in Bacaro downtown, and then we both started full time at Art Mart in 2007.

How did you guys meet?

Brian: We met at Boltini ... in 2005. But we’re both lifelong residents of Champaign-Urbana.

What do you guys like to do for fun?

Brian: I enjoy riding my bike with friends from high school.

Courtney: Cooking. He cooks.

Brian: And our children are obviously very important to us, and that’s also another big aspect of our charitable giving is our oldest son has Down syndrome and had leukemia, and so children’s cancer charities are very important to us, helping out the disabled children in the area as well through sending them to camp through the Fraternal Order of Police. They do a day camp for children with disabilities, and that’s a big one for us. We host a lot of wine tastings for Crisis Nursery and CASA and several other organizations. Basically helping out children’s charities is really important to us.

How many children do you guys have?

Brian: We have two boys, 11 and 9.

Do they ever come over and help out at Art Mart?

Brian: Oh yeah. They come here and they just help themselves to cookies and toys out of the toy store, so we have a whole toy department back here.

Courtney: But our 9-year-old, he loves to help. He will do anything, and we pay him in cookies. He will take the recycling, he’ll restock bags, he’ll do whatever you ask.

Brian: He really likes working here.

Do you have a favorite dish you enjoy making?

Courtney: Well, a lot of the recipes that we use here were my grandmother’s. She ran a catering business in southern Illinois and so our cookie recipes, a lot of our salads and everything come from her, so I feel like that kind of laid the groundwork for what this business has become.

Brian: And because of the catering aspect and background, that’s really helped us through the changes over the past few weeks, where people can place orders with us, and so it’s allowing us to keep as many people employed right now as we can. We’ve had to change the business model, but our history of catering and helping people ... it allows us to keep going as a business.

What other changes have you had to make since the shelter-in-place order?

Courtney: We cut five hours off of our day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough hours for employees, but we’re getting about 50 percent of people coming in and 50 percent of people doing curbside and delivery. Because no one can spend Easter with their families, we put together an Easter menu, and it’s actually the first time I’ve ever baked a ham, so we’re about to find out how it turns out. But we had so many requests for Easter for people because nobody can travel.

What about accommodations you’ve had to make with your children being out of school?

Brian: We’re really fortunate in that we’ve been traveling with our neighbors when the quarantine started, and so we have been all together ever since, and she’s a school teacher, so the boys have been going over and she’s been home-schooling them for two hours everyday. It’s changed things. I come in here for two hours a day. Then we’ve been doing some trips out to Homer Lake and that kind of thing. Trying to keep them engaged.

Courtney: Both of their teachers are really trying to engage them also, so the Unit 4 teachers have been great. It’s just a challenge for everybody, it’s a learning curve. They also ride their bikes a lot.

What are you most looking forward to when the stay-at-home order is lifted? The very first thing you’re going to go out and do.

Brian: For me, get out and ride my bike.

Courtney: Seeing your friends.

Brian: Yeah, just being with friends.

Courtney: Seeing customers. Our customers have been so great, they just want to buy gift certificates and want to support us. They’ll call to check on us. We’ve had customers in tears on the phone when we deliver them food because it’s part of their routine and they don’t live within walking distance and they don’t drive, whatever. So the fact that we can come and deliver them food, it’s engaging for them as well.

Brian: Engaging with customers is something, and that’s why we do this. We love our customers and our staff, and our staff loves our customers and it’s really good to be around those people, and we really miss those personal relationships right now. It’s very strange.

What would you choose as your final meal?

Brian: Farren’s.

Courtney: I would say, my cousin’s in Austin, and the Tex-Mex in Austin is amazing. That or barbecue, from Texas.

If you could sit down and have dinner with any celebrity, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Courtney: Brian did sit down with Matt Dillon once.

Brian: I did. During Ebertfest years ago, he was in town. But I would not choose him again. It was a little odd.

Courtney: Julia Child. What an interesting, fascinating life.

Brian: Greg LeMond. American cyclist extraordinaire. No, wait. I want to change my answer to Jerry Garcia.

Do you travel a lot?

Brian: We do a lot of traveling for work, and pleasure, but we really do combine both. A lot of the inspiration for a lot of what we sell in the store comes from traveling. We love going to New York. A lot of our inspiration comes from restaurants and cafes in New York City.