A Brush With Fame

Hot off an appearance on CBS’ hit reality show, “Undercover Boss,” Painting with a Twist Co-owner Renee Maloney shares how a simple idea to bring women together and have a good time has now become the fastest-growing franchise in the nation.
Cheryl Gerber
Painting with a Twist Co-owner, Renee Maloney

The idea is simple: spend a few hours at a laid-back art studio with good friends drinking, relaxing and learning step-by-step how to paint a picture you can take home with you when you leave.

Over the past decade, however, this simple casual entertainment concept has spawned an entire “paint and sip” industry with an estimated 200 wine-and-painting party companies across the United States and Canada, according to a 2014 statistic from the Small Business Association.

A mixture of art, drinking, and just having a good time, it’s not surprising that the creators of the first-ever — and still largest — paint-and-sip franchise hail from New Orleans, Louisiana.  

Renee Maloney and Cathy Deano (now residents of Mandeville) are the owners of Painting with a Twist. Created in 2007, the company currently includes 325 locations in 37 states that employ approximately 2,200 people.

In January, Painting with a Twist was rated the No. 1 paint-and-sip studio in the country for the fourth year in a row on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 list. Not only a leader in its category, the company also claimed the title this year of fastest-growing franchise. Last year Painting with a Twist experienced 25 percent growth, with 40 percent of franchise owners running multiple locations.

The company’s tremendous success recently caught the attention of the hit CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” Now in its eighth season, the show invites big-name company executives to disguise themselves and go undercover as an entry-level employee to get an inside look at what’s really going on at their business. Past executives have hailed from companies including Build-a-Bear, Wienerschnitzel, NASCAR, Chiquita Brands International, Choice Hotels, 7-Eleven, Subway, Frontier Airlines and Popeyes. Maloney jumped at the opportunity last fall and the Painting with a Twist episode aired on January 4.

Goals for the company are currently to reach 700 stores nationwide, and Maloney says there’s even thought of going international.

From a humble Mandeville storefront in 2007 to the foundation of a whole new industry, the growth of Painting with a Twist can only be described as fast and furious — and it all came from two PTA moms looking for a way to stay busy and give back in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

School Fundraisers Turned Industry Pioneers

“I met Cathy when my youngest was in kindergarten — we were co-room moms together,” says Maloney. “We started doing fundraising together for things like computers and the school art program, and it turns out we were really good at it.”

Maloney says that Deano, a trained interior designer, is the more artsy side of the duo. “She was more vested in the community and served as president of the art association.”

Maloney, on the other hand, would never call herself artistic. “I actually failed out of art class; they asked me to leave the class,” she says. With more of a head for numbers, Maloney was spending 10 days a month running her father’s orthodontic practice in New Orleans when two met. “Along with a lot of other things, I was in charge of sales,” she says. “My dad is a great businessman. I’ve learned so much from him.”

When Hurricane Katrina struck, the successful school fundraisers went in search of a new way they could give back to the community while also providing themselves with jobs.

LEFT- The company, which now boasts more than 300 franchises nationwide, was formed in 2007 by New Orleans natives (now Mandeville residents) Cathy Deano and Renee Maloney.  RIGHT- Disguised as “Savannah” an entry-level employee of Painting With a Twist, Maloney went undercover in her own business this past fall for CBS’ reality show, “Undercover Boss.”

“We would walk by the lake every day and discuss ideas,” Maloney says. “Then one day some friends — John Hodge and Francis Rich — proposed the idea of doing speed art (similar to the kind of Bob Ross style).

“At first I thought, ‘No way. I’m a horrible painter,’ but then Cathy said, ‘What if we could drink?’”

With the help of Deano’s sister’s stepdaughter, an artist and yoga teacher, the two women gathered about 20 friends and held their first class.

“We painted this Matisse painting — a woman with big lips,” Maloney says. “We didn’t even drink actually, but it was a lot of fun. At the end I asked everyone three questions: Did you have fun? Would you do it again? And would you pay for it? The answers were all yes, so we thought, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Maloney and Deano soon leased their first storefront. “It was definitely nothing fancy, but it was on a four-way stop on the bus route and really convenient from our homes,” Maloney says. “It had great front windows.”

Ideas for paintings commonly from local retailers. “We looked at the art sold in stores like TJ Maxx, Pier 1 and Neiman Marcus,” Maloney says. “We basically just looked at what people were buying and created our own.”

Instructors commonly create their own art pieces that they teach to the class. Whatever they create becomes the property of Painting with a Twist. “We now have over 9,000 pieces of copyrighted art,” Maloney says.

Public classes are typically $35 per person for a two-hour painting and $45 for a three-hour painting. Kids are a bit cheaper — $25 and $35. Alcohol is welcome but on a B.Y.O.B. basis.

"We're Onto Something"

During the first year in business, Maloney says there was one special night that told both women that they might have found a niche.

“We had a full class of 38 women on a summer night and we were having a great time — the music was playing, the wine was flowing — and then suddenly, as happens often in Mandeville, the power went out,” Maloney says. “We’re sitting there in the dark and I start explaining that we’ll of course refund their money or reschedule for another time and them women just collectively said, ‘No.’ They refused to leave! A few of them actually pulled their cars around to face the front windows and turned their lights on so we could keep partying. Cathy and I couldn’t believe it.”

Before they did, eventually, leave, Maloney asked them why they stayed. “They told me, ‘You don’t understand. This is the first time we’ve been able to really get away for a while and not think about the flooding, the kids and the bills.”

Painting with a Twist had clearly created a unique, fun, escape from the daily grind that people craved.   

Giving Back

In forming the company in the post-Katrina landscape, an essential part of Painting with a Twist has always been giving back. The company’s charitable arm, Painting with a Purpose, raises money for local charities through monthly events at all locations. To date, more than $3.25 million has been raised.

This past July, that core value came full circle when Painting with a Twist launched its own nonprofit organization, The Painting with a Purpose Foundation, dedicated to giving back to Painting with a Twist artists to further their education and cover expenses due to illnesses, family crises or other emergency situations.

How Big is Too Big?

After only a year in business, in 2008 Painting with a Twist added two locations — one in Metairie and one in Baton Rouge. “In 2009, within two weeks we had three separate people that didn’t know each other tell us we needed to franchise,” Maloney says. “So we found someone to help us do that.”

In May and June of 2009, the company opened in Louisiana, Florida and Texas.

A majority of the franchisees started as customers and then fell in love. “People buy into it; they love it,” Maloney says.

“You have to look at what you do well, and for us that means reading every customer that comes through the door.” – Painting with a Twist Co-owner, Renee Maloney

Soon, what started as an idea for a ladies night out, branched out to include kids camps, date nights, birthdays, corporate teambuilding and even bridal events where the bride paints free.

The way Maloney describes the businesses growth is simple: “Doors kept opening and we kept walking through them.” The two weren’t exactly in agreement when it came to growth though.

“Cathy was really happy with one store,” Maloney says. “In my mind I thought that we would do 10 and then retire to Bali, but then it’s like we blinked and we were at 30, then 100.”

Last year the company broke into four new states and celebrated its 5 millionth customer. Of the 67 new franchise agreements signed, 32 percent were by existing owners.

Reality TV Comes Calling

With the business growing so rapidly, Maloney says the women began to have a few concerns.

“We used to be at every grand opening, but now we just can’t get to them all,” she says. “There are locations that we’ve never seen, and of course we wonder if there are problems we aren’t hearing about or ways we could improve.”

Last fall Maloney and Deano were given a rare opportunity to answer these questions with an invite to appear on “Undercover Boss.”

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the show,” Maloney says. “I watch it every week and have done so for years. So I was blown away when they came to us.”

The chance to get an undercover look at their own company, however, involved giving up a lot of control.

“You have to really sign your life away,” Maloney says. “The show chooses everything — what your disguise will be, what you’ll be doing, what locations you’ll be going to — and nothing is scripted.”

For Maloney, creating her new alter ego, Savannah, involved bleaching her hair blonde, wearing fake glasses and staining her teeth — something she said her orthodontist father found hard to see.

Over about a week, Maloney was sent to franchises in San Antonio and Rockwall, Texas, and one in Royersford, Pennsylvania. In each she was tasked with teaching a class — something she had never done before. Maloney was also sent to a warehouse in Hammond, Louisiana, where her job was to check hundreds of canvases one by one for defects.

Lessons Learned Undercover

In addition to learning that she is not cut out to teach painting classes, Maloney says her biggest takeaway from the show was that not only franchise owners, but instructors and customers were embracing the company’s main goals of a fun and supportive culture.

Not everything was rosy, however. One instructor in Rockwell complained that she had created many original paintings that had been very popular, but the company didn’t compensate artists financially. The franchise owner in Royersford shared that he had to invest his own money to learn valuable social media tips to help his business grow.

In addition to handing out thousands of dollars — and even an entire franchise location to the instructor in Rockwell — Maloney says her goal at the end of the show was to make sure the people she met knew that their concerns were being heard.

“We’ve implemented a lot of changes since the show was taped in October,” she says. Included among them are a new seating chart (Maloney struggled with the current system while working at the front desk), a new training portal for artists, and the establishment of an Artist’s Advisory Council, among whose goals is to work out a compensation method for artists who create original work.

The Future for "Fun Art, Not Fine Art"

Spurred by their experience on the show, both women have made it a company goal to keep communication lines as open and honest as possible through things like their “Power Hours” — monthly town hall-style conversations with franchisees.

Powering ahead, the company is aiming for 60 new studios in 2017, with a special focus on Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.  

Always seeking to innovate, the company has launched a new class — Paint Your Pet — where customers submit a drawing of their pet ahead of their scheduled class and an artist sketches it out and then helps them paint it. Customers are also invited to upgrade to a new offering, a Bluetooth canvas that plays music off of any mobile device for an additional $90 fee.

With growing competition, Maloney says she feels the key to the company’s continued success is all about creating a perfectly tailored experience.

“You have to look at what you do well, and for us that means reading every customer that comes through the door and learning what they want. Do they want a peaceful evening or a party? Do they always prefer to sit in the front right chair? We keep notes on everything and that helps us treat everyone like they’re family. And it is a family. If you treat your staff like you want them to treat your customer, success will follow.” 


Categories: Education, The Magazine