This was an article that I wrote for my Feature Writing class final, but I figured it would be a great blog post as well!
A new store on Newbury Street has just opened and every weekend night curious shoppers peer into its windows to observe a strange sight. This shop looks more like a studio, with exposed brick walls and canvases set up on easels. White shelves display a wall full of amateur paintings and a bar sits on the opposite side of the room. By 7 p.m., over 20 people are painting the canvases, intently watching the instructor in front of them. But this isn’t a serious painting class. The atmosphere is lively, social, and sometimes, a little drunk.
This place is called Paint Bar, or what Sean McGrail describes as a “paint and sip location.” McGrail is the co-founder and co-owner of Paint Nite, a business that brings paint instruction to local bars and restaurants. He came up with the idea after he went to a friend’s party at the first Paint Bar location in Newton, Mass. Since they have expanded to their second location on 248 Newbury St., the Paint Bar has over 10,000 likes on their Facebook page. Their online calendar has an event going on every night of the week and most get booked weeks in advance.
However, this business wasn’t always in high demand. Co-owners and mother daughter duo, Jill and Jackie Schon had trouble when they first opened their store in November 2010. Their friends and family doubted that people would want to attend their events. “Our first night in business we had three customers. Then our following Friday we had zero,” said Jill. After five months, it wasn’t until a feature on Chronicle and a Boston Globe article later, when they acquired a steady amount of customers. “Those two things happened at very critical times,” she said.
They began to see their classes fill up with both new and regular customers. At the beginning of every class, they ask their “addicted painters” to raise their hands. There are more than a handful each night who keep coming back. “More than 300 people have come back more than five times,” said Jill.
Steven Hayes is one of these addicts. “I was actually one of their first customers in West Newton. They didn’t even have a bar at the time,” he said. His fourth time at Paint Bar, he brought his date Laura Ferraro to the Newbury location. In his forties, he shows his mother all the paintings he’s done with just as much pride as a little kid. “Whatever painting I do I give my mom for Christmas,” he said.
Paint Bar caters to children with special parties and family events. Jill says they love the experience, “They’re less fearful. Adults haven’t painted since they were kids, so kids don’t see what the big deal is.” For new customers and children, a painting event costs $25. For returning customers it’s $35 and for private parties, it’s $45 a person.
The Schons brought this trend to New England after a friend told Jill of a place where “you paint and drink.” After some research, they discovered this painting bar phenomenon started in the South. They traveled to Georgia to see it for themselves, then came back to discover no one had caught on up North. “We weren’t looking to work together, we just happened upon a good idea,” said Jill. They trademarked the name “Paint Bar” when they began and now it’s gaining popularity. “We came up with this name, and now it seems to be the name that everyone is using,” she said.
While Jill handles the business side of their store, daughter Jackie is the artist who instructs most of the classes. However, she wasn’t a painter in college. She got her Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography and her professors always told her, “You’ll make no money as a painter.” Yet she is grateful in the path she took. “Now I have two skills and we couldn’t have opened if I didn’t have the money to support myself through that business,” she said.
A typical paint instruction starts with a pristine set up. Each person gets a 16x20 inch canvas on an easel, a paper plate with paint, a cup of water, and five different brushes. Jackie puts on her headset and steps onto her stage in the back of the room, as if she is about to put on a show. Everyone takes a seat after grabbing a drink at the bar and she begins her instruction. She starts by telling all the “type-A painters,” to be “type-J” painters. “Which means when I tell you to take your brushes and dip them into multiple colors at a time, nobody’s going to freak out at me, or start crying and run for the door!” she explains. “No stress,” she continues, “That is why we have a bar!”
Then, she tells everyone to take the rubber bands off their brushes so she can show them what each one is for. “Notice that the people who have already taken their rubber bands off are probably in the type-A category!” she says. Before she goes on, she tells everyone that it’s important to have fun. “Nobody likes negativity. It’s a buzz kill to the room,” she says. She warns that anyone who makes a negative comment about their painting will have to get on stage and show off their creation.
She begins the first steps of the painting clear and simple, demonstrating movements slowly and using fun analogies like, “Scoop it like you’re dipping a nacho Tostitos scoop chip into guacamole.” Between each step she turns on music and walks around to help anyone who may be struggling. After almost an hour, everyone takes a break to grab food from nearby restaurants while the backgrounds of their paintings dry.
By the second half of the class, they start to paint bottles on their canvases and the tipsy giggling sets in. While being able to serve alcohol is a main attraction for their 21 plus crowd, it’s also the part of the business Jill likes the least. They are cautious with their liquor license and it can be tough when they have to be strict. They card everyone before they serve them and carefully examine every ID. For instance, Jackie noticed an out-of-state license looked a bit suspicious and asked for another form of ID. “I had a fake ID in college once,” she told the blushing young lady. At one point, Jill stopped serving a man wine after he’d had four glasses. Their biggest concern is to be responsible because they don’t want a fun night to end up in something more serious.
This is where McGrail comes in. He and Dan Hermann started Paint Nite to offer an alternative approach to this pastime. “We thought it was a great concept,” said McGrail. But they wanted to improve upon this idea by making it more accessible. So they bring the paint instruction to bars and restaurants that already have liquor licenses. This way, there are several locations to choose from, customer don’t have to travel far, and there’s no studio to pay rent or get a liquor license for. Their first event in March 2012 sold out to friends and family and by their third week they had regularly sold out events. Their events cost $45 and sometimes they have special wine tastings that cost $55.
The public’s response to their franchise has been overwhelming positive said McGrail. They post pictures of each “paint nite” on their Facebook page. People see their family and friends tagged in the pictures, and then their page gets more hype from all the comments. “I don’t think this business could have existed five years ago,” said McGrail, attributing their success to the advances of social media.
As social media is such a major part of everyday life, McGrail says Paint Nite offers a great way for friends to meet up and actually talk in person. It was recently named “Best Friend Date” in New York Magazine.
Since there are 35 participating locations in Boston, they can hold many events a week. They’ve recently expanded to New York City, have plans to reach Miami this month, and will get to multiple cities in California by late June. “We do see it as a plan that’s going to sweep the nation,” said McGrail.
While McGrail and Hermann’s goal is to grow rapidly, the Schons plan to stay local. “We have no interest in becoming a national franchise. We just want to run a good business in Boston,” said Jill. Instead, they work on keeping things interesting at their two locations. “You have to come up with new and different ideas,” she said. Jackie creates unique paintings to keep up with their returning customers. “She’ll probably have five or six new paintings this month,” said Jill. They feel confident that this trend will last a while. “I don’t think it will go away anytime soon,” she said.
Whether this phenomenon of painting and drinking is here to stay or will fade out along with rollerblading and drive-ins, it’s guaranteed to be a fun social outing. It could be a unique date, a new place to go with friends, or even a way to meet new people. Paint Bar’s slogan is “Mix it up and paint!” This is surely one great way to way to mix up your life.