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Painting the Way

Each brightly colored art studio under the Color Me Mine umbrella has a mission: bring families and friends together one painted ceramic soccer ball at a time. Each day kids, youth sports teams, families and birthday party groups crowd into studios to paint pre-made figurines, dishes and other items around close-knit tables. A week later, they return to find the final product glazed and ready for pick-up. “We sell two products. We sell ‘ahhs’ and we sell ‘wows,’” said Mike Mooslin, president of Color Me Mine Enterprises. The Glendale-based company, which manages a network of paint-it-yourself pottery studios, has 141 locations worldwide, including 109 in the U.S. Last year, stores that had been open more than one year had sales averaging $272,000. And the company’s revenues have steadily increased in the last few years, even as families have looked to cut back on optional expenditures. “In a recession time, people are traveling less and they’re looking for entertainment close to home,” Mooslin said. “They’re also willing to sacrifice themselves — what they’re spending — but they’re not willing to sacrifice for their children. They’re looking for ways to buffer them and protect them in a bad economy. So we’ve been the recipients of increased sales during the recession.” In 2008, the company, including franchises, had $20.9 million in revenue. This year, it is projecting $27.2 million. Customers enjoy the quiet, face-to-face time the Color Me Mine studios offer family and friends, Mooslin said. “You don’t have to be an artist to paint something, and it will always come out beautiful,” he said. He recalled painting a soccer ball black and white with his grandson years ago, and how that soccer ball was always a memory of time they’d spent together. Lisa Marandy, 19, agrees with his premise. “I’m not a great drawer or painter. I’m good at baking,” said Marandy, who painted with her friend Tiffany Farshi, 19, in Encino and recently finished her term at culinary school. “But we had lunch, and just get to have a nice afternoon. It took us 45 minutes just to decide on our paints. We could spend hours in here.” Turnaround strategy While the economy may have been difficult to deal with in recent years, so was the state of the company when Mooslin came to it in 1998. Color Me Mine was started in 1993 by couple Robin Monroe and Josh Culver, who opened a store on La Brea Avenue. They expanded to three locations with the help of friends and later sold their idea and stores to a corporation. By 1998, the stores were losing money at a rate of $3 million a year. Mooslin found something compelling about the business, then a subsidiary of KooKooRoo Inc., for which he worked. So he gathered some investors and bought the company. They incorporated as Color Me Mine Enterprises that same year. Shortly thereafter, he decided to transition the business to a franchise model. The main office managed the network of locations, but handed over daily onsite operations and financial management to individual owners. “People fall in love with it, and almost every single franchise owner comes to us as a customer first,” Mooslin said. “We don’t advertise for franchises. We don’t go to franchise shows. We aren’t on any of those sites on the Internet for franchising, because the typical person who is looking to own a business doesn’t share the mission and the passion of Color Me Mine. It almost has to start with someone who tried it, loved it, and had to have one.” Mooslin notes that, similarly, the success of the business model depends on developing loyal customers who introduce the store to friends and family members. To drive repeat business, he said, the company focuses on creating an environment where busy friends and family can spend quality time together. “This is a respite from the storm,” he said. “This really is a haven for America’s families. And that’s our goal.” Farshi says she enjoyed playing with paints at Color Me Mine as a child and still appreciates the experience as an adult, though it’s a different sort of entertainment. “When I was little my parents brought me here twice a month,” said Farshi, as she painted a tea set. “But when the little kids come, they just splatter stuff, they don’t enjoy it. It’s totally different now. We were just saying we should come two times a week.” Color Me Mine serves a narrow niche, as only single-location companies or small regional chains are entering the fray, and business patterns are similar to other entertainment venues, such as amusement parks and movie theaters. “It gets slow right after kids go back to school, but we’re pretty busy on the weekends and in the summer,” said Manny Diaz, who has worked at the Calabasas location for nearly 5 years. Adapting to the economy As the economy plunged in recent years, Mooslin was forced once again to rethink Color Me Mine’s business model. For a franchisee, each store is roughly a $150,000 upfront commitment. As the economy took a downturn, that amount seemed impossible for many potential owners. Unwilling to sacrifice growth because of the difficult market, Mooslin opted to start building more company stores on speculation, then look for a franchisee later. Attractive rents in good locations were readily available for the first time in many years, and he says he was unwilling to let those leases go to waste. “I want to capture as many of those leases as I can over the next few years where I think that they’re going to remain at these attractive levels and grow the company, even if we have to do it as company stores first and then find franchisees that are well-suited to them,” Mooslin said. “And we’ll help franchise them and put them in business.” Despite not all being company-owned stores, Mooslin keeps a close eye on each location. He tracks sales and performance for nearly every store, and pushes the business’ corporate support to assist any owner who might be struggling. At any given time, about a dozen locations are company owned, whether because they are just opening or the company has decided to take back an underperforming store. When looking for a location, Mooslin said he looks for so-called lifestyle centers, anchored by movie theaters and high-end retailers. “When the very best shopping centers, lifestyle centers, have vacancies and have attractive rents, we have a national brand and increasing sales. And I’m marrying those two conditions together,” he said. He also has looked at other options to streamline the company and ease the financial burden on existing owners. Supplies were regionally outsourced, with distribution coming from Sacramento, Baltimore, Boston and Columbus, Ohio. And while growth has remained at the forefront of his strategy for the company, Mooslin has remained determined that the company not outgrow what he feels their corporate structure can handle. “We have averaged about 12 stores a year, for the last 10 to 12 years. It’s very steady — about one to two a month. We like that growth. We can handle that growth,” he said. That may not mean that he can keep it that way, though. “Interest is building, and we probably could end up doubling that, or go up to 20 a year instead of 12 a year,” he said. “But we don’t want to be one of these runaway expansion programs. We want slow, steady, nice growth.”

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