As Gulf Coast residents, Renee Maloney and I had been through the drill of preparing our homes and ourselves for an approaching hurricane, but this time was different. It was Aug. 26, 2005, the Friday before Hurricane Katrina hit our town of Mandeville, La., and my best friend, Judy, called with news that Katrina was going to be worse than Camille, the hurricane that all but wiped out the Gulf Coast in 1969. Katrina was predicted to hit as a catastrophic Category 5. I called my friend Renee and we began the manic packing and securing of our homes before we had to evacuate. We both lived only a block from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and knew we might come home to find nothing but brick steps, as was the case with Renee’s husband’s family after Hurricane Camille.
Katrina came roaring through in the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005. Renee had evacuated three hours north with her family, while I was with my family at a friend’s place about three miles away from the water. During the storm, my house flooded and Renee’s was raised 10 feet off the ground. The next day, the levees in New Orleans broke, and Renee’s husband’s three truck stops all flooded.
Once recovery began, Renee and I looked for a way to help our families’ finances and give our community an outlet—something new—to boost spirits. So, with the suggestion from our artist friends John Hodge and Francie Rich, we opened our first Corks n Canvas studio two years after the storm. We offered monthly “BYOB” art classes, where people could learn to paint, drink wine and relax—anything to give our hard-hit community some fun and camaraderie.
We were trying to open a business in a post-disaster environment and survive a recession. We definitely had our challenges. We were learning and training others in an industry that did not yet exist. We had to find artists who could create paintings that could be demonstrated and taught to guests in two to three hours. And the popularity of the concept attracted copycat competitors.
But we believe our success has been due to our unrivaled customer service, superior training of artists and franchisees, and an exemplary art library. Early on, we realized the magic of these events was not necessarily in the artwork, but in the experience. Inviting people to do something that makes them feel accomplished raises self-esteem and takes them out of their reality, if only for one night—all while having a good time with good friends. It is also an experience that has value. Just $35-$45 covers a night out and results in a completed painting to hang in the home or give as a gift.
Today, our parties have blossomed into Painting with a Twist, a nationwide success with more than 150 studios in 25 states. Not only does the company employ the largest number of aspiring artists nationwide, but all franchisees give back to their local communities to the tune of almost $1 million raised so far.
What Renee and I have learned through the experience is to not be afraid to be innovative when developing a business. Hire people who can grasp your vision and in whom you trust, build a culture based on that trust, and don’t be afraid to combine passions—like art and wine—to create a business. Find a way to give back to your community. And most of all, love what you do.