Detroit’s comeback story has a Twist
Michelle Lewis operates Painting with a Twist franchises in Detroit, after discovering the concept in New Orleans while working with FEMA to rebuild the hurricane-hit city.
Michelle Lewis says luck has had a lot to do with her success operating Painting with a Twist franchise locations in Michigan but she adds, “that luck is also coupled with pursuing the opportunity at hand.”
“I feel like I acted on the luck,” says Lewis, whose journey to owning three locations of the paint-and-sip concept in and around Detroit started in New Orleans before taking her back to her hometown.
It was 2005 and when Lewis, who’d been working as an architect for 13 years, started noticing a slowdown in business she also started looking for other opportunities. About the same time, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the south, leaving a disaster area that stretched from Texas to Florida, with New Orleans among the hardest-hit cities.
“I wasn’t sold on moving anywhere permanent, Detroit is my home, but I saw an opportunity to use my background to help out down there,” says Lewis of her decision to move to New Orleans, taking a job with a company contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin the rebuilding process.
For five years Lewis worked with planners, public agencies and public facilities such as schools and hospitals, writing the grant applications that ultimately helped the city begin to repair itself. The experience was fulfilling, says Lewis, “and I felt a sense that I really helped achieve a lot down there.” It’s also where she had another experience, one that would launch the next chapter in her career.
The class was called “Lemon Drops,” named for the painting an artist-led group of novice painters created while sipping wine. A friend had invited Lewis to the studio, at the time called Corks and Canvas before it began franchising as Painting with a Twist, “and within the first five minutes I was hooked,” says Lewis. “I started going every two weeks.”
Postings of her paintings on social media quickly led to friends back in Detroit asking if the studio had locations there. “It was like a light bulb moment,” says Lewis. “I thought, why don’t I bring Painting with a Twist home with me.”
Lewis opened her first studio in 2010 in the Detroit suburb of Ferndale. It was just the 24th location in the franchise system, but Lewis says the newness of the concept actually worked to her advantage, with people curious about the classes and hungry for a different kind of entertainment.
“A lot of brands and concepts weren’t coming here and so when a different type of concept came, people really gravitated toward it,” says Lewis.
The northern suburb of Farmington was next, with Lewis’ second studio opening in 2012. She’d always thought about the possibly of a downtown Detroit spot, but then the city entered Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013 and Lewis instead focused her efforts on making her two stores some of the top performers in the system by securing great artist instructors and integrating her businesses into the community.
By 2015 Detroit’s comeback was underway, aided by billions of investment dollars from the likes of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Little Caesars Pizza parent Ilitch Holdings. Lewis wanted in on the revitalization action.
“Because I’m from Detroit, I wanted it to become successful again, to become alive and vibrant again,” she says. Partnering with her sister Donna, Painting with a Twist debuted in Detroit in November 2015 with a studio on the first floor of the Julian C. Madison Building in the heart of downtown.
Almost three years later and now operating three profitable locations, Lewis says success to her goes beyond the business itself.
“It was so much more than just Painting with a Twist coming into the city,” says Lewis. “It was showing others, African-Americans in our community, we’re here, we want to be a part of what’s going on in our city.”
She adds, “This shows our community that we are here and we can do this. We’re not being pushed out.”