Tammy Milam said she thought she had a winning idea when she decided to go into business on her own six years ago.
For months, Milam had attended classes at Corks N Canvas, a so-called “paint and sip” studio in Mandeville where people create artwork while drinking wine. At the time, she was preparing to move back to her native Lafayette, was looking to change careers and wanted to bring the idea with her to open her own studio.
“I just loved the concept because you can go there as a single female; you don’t have to worry about getting hit on,” Milam said. “It was a fun, safe environment.”
After speaking with the studio’s owners, Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney, they arranged for Milam to set up her own franchise. Fast-forward six years, and Milam is now among an expanded group of more than 230 studio operators who have sprung up across the country under the name Painting With a Twist.
At first, Lafayette residents needed some prodding before picking up a paintbrush. But before long, word spread. Now, Milam has outgrown her studio space twice and is relocating to a new building that’s big enough to host three classes at once.
“It’s a pleasant surprise,” she said. “Every day, customers are calling, wanting to know about the business, what it’s all about. Your job is never done. You’re always educating people.”
Deano and Maloney opened their first location in 2007. In addition to their Mandeville headquarters, the pair have added three more studios in the New Orleans area.
Area franchise locations include Baton Rouge, Hammond, New Iberia and Prairieville.
Altogether, counting the national franchises, nearly 1,400 people work at the studios, including 55 employees of their own.
What’s more, they say, the company has become the largest employer of aspiring artists in the country.
The women were motivated to go into business together to earn extra money for their families after Hurricane Katrina flooded Deano’s house and destroyed Maloney’s husband’s three truck stops in Mandeville.
Having met when they both had children enrolled in kindergarten years before and regularly volunteered at the school, they set out to find a business concept that would allow them to stay active in the community and offer a means to give back.
Initially, Deano, 61, suggested architectural salvage. “We lost everything in the storm, as far as architecture goes,” she said. “Why don’t we hook a trailer to the back of our Suburban, go to Texas, buy old antique doors and fireplaces, come back and resell them?”
Maloney nixed it. “I thought it would be disgusting,” she said.
They kept brainstorming. Then it hit them: Knowing their friends and neighbors could use a distraction, they began hosting backyard parties that combined learning to paint and relaxing over a few glasses of wine.
Maloney, 46, wasn’t sure it would work. “I failed art in the sixth grade,” she said. “I just didn’t see how people like me who are intimidated or scared by art were really going to show up.”
But the classes filled up. Despite starting out in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, marketing experts say it’s no surprise the concept became popular. The classes appeal (mostly) to women looking for a cheap night out with friends, offering a brief reprise from everyday stresses. It also helps that participants leave each session with a sense of accomplishment and something tangible — a painting.
“They’re obviously a good example of an entrepreneurial company that had a marketable idea, and it did well in a certain geographic market, and they had the opportunity to expand it to other areas,” said Pamela Kennett-Hensel, a marketing professor at the University of New Orleans.
“I think it speaks to just the entrepreneurial spirit of the New Orleans metro area,” she said, “and it’s quite impressive that they’ve grown so quickly and been able to move into franchising.”
In Mandeville, classes are scheduled four nights a week. The rest of the week is open for private parties, either for children — sans wine — or groups like bachelorette parties.
Each session features an instructor and assistant. Participants sign up ahead of time knowing what they’ll paint, and they’re shown how to do it step-by-step.
“If you’ve got someone at the head of the class telling you what to do, then you’re going to have a painting,” Maloney said. “It makes people feel very accomplished, and it raises self-esteem. That’s what we’re finding is the engine that drives this business.”
Two-hour classes are $35; it’s $45 for three hours. “The biggest draw is that it’s a stress reliever,” Deano said. “For two or three hours, we can just kind of escape.”
The studios also host monthly fundraisers — dubbed Painting With a Purpose — in which proceeds are donated to local nonprofit groups.
When Deano and Maloney began getting inquiries from customers like Milam who wanted to start their own studio, they were surprised.
“This is Mandeville,” Deano said with a laugh. “This is not the hotbed of franchise activity.”
After consulting with an attorney who specialized in franchising, they began laying the groundwork. So far, it’s especially caught on with people looking for a career change.
The franchising fee is $25,000, but it costs about $100,000 to get a studio up and running, they said. The fee includes training for both the new business owner as well as for the art instructor.
“People could do it without mortgaging their house,” Deano said.
For many first-timers, franchising is a common way to learn the ropes of owning a small business, experts say.
“A lot of times, it’s started by people who just liked to do that thing,” said Peter Ricchiuti, a finance professor at Tulane University. “They really weren’t business people, and then it sort of gets some momentum.”
That’s how Milam got involved. These days, running her own studio is like “every night’s a party.”
“When everybody walks in, they’re smiling and they’re ready to have a good time,” she said. “It’s very rewarding, at the end of the class, to see them walk out with their accomplished piece of art and they have that ah-ha moment of, ‘God, I didn’t think I could paint. This is nice.’ ”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.