From Corporate Insider to New Franchise Owner

From Corporate Insider to New Franchise Owner

Mari Sokolowski, Franchise Development Director of Pinot’s Palette, Opens Chicago Studio

Mari Sokolowski was never exactly a “corporate type”:  After she graduated from The University of Texas with degrees in marketing and advertising, she worked for a few big corporations where she had a hard time subscribing to what she calls “red-tape ideals.”

“I got my hand slapped a lot during my first couple of years after college,” admits Sokolowski, who says her assertive, Type-A personality sometimes conflicted with her early employers’ ways of doing things.  “It took a while for me to find the right fit with a more entrepreneurial company.”

That “entrepreneurial company” was – of course – Pinot’s Palette, an upscale paint and sip franchise.  Sokolowski joined the company a little over two years ago as the company’s franchise development director, a position that meant working closely with potential franchisees and helping them invest in an art and wine business.

Unlike the positions she’d held previously, Sokolowski didn’t run into any “red tape” or hand-slapping at Pinot’s Palette.  Instead, she says, company co-founders Craig Ceccanti and Charles Willis encouraged her to grow and expand her role with the company.  They also encouraged her entrepreneurial spirit:  Just six months after she joined the Pinot’s team, Ceccanti and Willis began hinting that she should open her own Pinot’s Palette franchise.

At first, Sokolowski brushed off her bosses’ hints.  “I think they saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself at the time,” she says.  Eventually, though, she started listening to Ceccanti and Willis.  And the more she listened, the more she liked what she heard.

“I always thought that owning a business would be a great choice for me – so I started thinking about what it would be like to own a paint and sip studio.  And then I started thinking about how I was going to get the capital together.  Pretty soon, it seemed like a no-brainer.”

A Brand-New Market, a “Bucket List,” and a Wine Bar

When she first joined the Pinot’s Palette team, Sokolowski was living in the company’s home city of Houston.  Just a few months after she was hired, though, her husband Mark was transferred to Chicago.  The couple packed up and headed north.  Mari kept her position with Pinot’s Palette, and it was around this time that she began to seriously consider opening a her own franchise.

“Chicago was a brand-new market,” she says.  “And it was easy to see the rapid expansion that was going on within the company – so I signed a franchise agreement to open the first-ever Chicago area Pinot’s Palette.”

Sokolowski’s father, who still lives Houston, agreed to sign on as her long-distance business partner – on one condition.

“One of my dad’s ‘bucket list’ items was to own a wine bar,” says Sokolowski.  “So, of course, I decided early that my studio would have its own wine bar rather than a BYOB-type setup.”

Once the paperwork was signed, Sokolowski began the process of opening her very own Pinot’s Palette studio.

“It All Works Out in the End”

As a company “insider,” Sokolowski says she had a few advantages:  She knew what to expect from the lease negotiation process, and she had a solid understanding of the steps involved in studio build-out.  But she’s quick to point out that she didn’t receive any special treatment.  And, like every other newly minted Pinot’s Palette franchise owner, she faced her share of challenges

“I’ve explained our process to new franchise owners so many times over the past two years – but I’ve never been on the franchisee side of the process before,” says Sokolowski, who added that the most challenging part of the process for her was finding just the right location for her studio.  After a thorough search, she finally chose the Chicago suburb of Glenview.

“I found a landlord that really saw the value of having a Pinot’s Palette,” she says.  “And I’ve gotten incredible support from the community.  I’ve been featured in some of the community newspapers, and the City of Glenview has been really helpful and easy to work with.”

Sokolowski’s studio opened on Valentine’s Day weekend, and her first class was completely sold out – thanks in large part to local couples looking for a creative Valentine’s Day date night.

It was a rewarding night, to be sure.  But Sokolowski says that her “soft opening” – a pre-grand opening event reserved for friends and family — is probably the night she’ll remember most of all.  Her father flew up from Houston to attend the event, and her husband and friends were there to see her hard work come to life.

“Mark gave a beautiful speech, and my dad was so impressed and excited to see the studio,” she says.  “It was awesome.”

Now that her studio is officially open for business, Sokolowski balances her role as a franchisee with her franchise development position at Pinot’s Palette.  She’s hired a studio manager to oversee the day-to-day operations of her studio, but she makes time to stop in at her studio to observe classes filled with happy customers.

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