By Cameron Walker
Most alcohol-fueled ideas quickly run out of gas, but the paint-and-sip franchise Wine and Design is only heating up. The company started as a single studio in Raleigh in 2010 and has grown to 66 franchises from the East Coast to Hawaii, with more in the planning stages. Eight employees staff the Raleigh corporate office.
CEO Harriet Mills, now 35, had an infant at home and had lost her job as a sales representative for Hillsborough-based Vietri, which imports dinnerware from Italy, when a trip to Charleston, S.C., changed the course of her career. She and co-founder Emmy Preiss, who have since parted ways, conceived the idea for Wine and Design after attending a paint-and-sip party there.
“We took the class, and two bottles of wine later, the painting was amazing,” she says. “I woke up the next morning, and it was even better.” The two drew up a business plan, secured an $8,000 loan and opened the first location three months later. Classes sold out quickly due to a Groupon ad buy, which Mills estimates brought in 10,000 customers.
“It was the worst economy to open a business,” she says. “But it worked because it was $35 for a good night of entertainment. It was cheap, it was different, you got to bring something home, and you actually got to talk to your friends.” Classes are still $35. Men are scarce — 99% of Wine and Design franchises are owned by women — but with a flurry of such companies booming, they don’t seem to be missed.
Husband-and-wife team Marianne and Craig Burt approached Mills with the idea of opening a Wine and Design store in Cary. The idea of a franchise was born. “Back then, I thought franchising was really only for McDonald’s, Wendy’s … the big corporations. But come to find out, anybody can do it,” Mills says. “Once we had franchising on our website, we had people calling from all over. North Carolina hadn’t had the paint-and-sip concept, so it spread rapidly because everybody wanted it.”
The original paint-and-sip business was Painting with a Twist, started in Louisiana in 2007 by Cathy Deano and Renee Mulaney as a morale booster following Hurricane Katrina. Similar companies popped up soon after, including Houston-based Pinot’s Palette and Paint Nite, which began in Boston and uses a licensing arrangement instead of franchises and classes in bars instead of permanent locations. Most paint-and-sip studios are BYOB, some with bartenders, while others sell alcohol, depending on local laws and regulations
Mills says Wine and Design offers franchisees revenue streams that competitors don’t: camps and after-school classes for children; corporate events; On Wheels, which takes the studio on the road; and Paint it Forward to facilitate fundraising. Franchise fees are lower than rivals Painting with a Twist and Pinot’s Palette, which require initial outlays of about $100,000 and from $80,000 to $170,000, respectively. Wine and Design’s franchise fee is $25,000, and Mills estimates the total cost to open a studio begins at $40,000. She says studios in larger markets are averaging $350,000 a year in revenue; she declines to share revenue specifics, but says the business is thriving. Paint Nite raised $13 million in 2015 and is now valued at $40 million, according to Bloomberg.
“We had our best year ever in 2015, beating our franchisee revenue goal by 20%, and we’re on track to increase our franchise revenue in 2016 by 25%,” Mills says.
Until recently, the company has largely relied on social media and word-of-mouth for advertising, but that is about to change. It recently redesigned its logo, color palette and website, and hired a PR firm. According to Mills, they are also working on a new slogan. “Girl Boss,” she smiles. “Let us paint your future.”