After a day spent caring for animals, you’d think that the last thing that co-workers from the Banfield Pet Hospital in St. Louis Park would want to do is tend to little live things.

But a small group of veterinarians and vet techs found that activity to be a great stress buster — doing it over cocktails and shared plates of nachos.

On a recent Tuesday, they attended Plant Nite at a downtown Minneapolis bar, working side by side to build their own terrariums to take home.

“I’m not artistic — I’m a scientist, but it’s good for me to use the right side of my brain,” said veterinarian Angela Edenloff, 38, who sipped a Moscow mule as she placed a precise pattern of colored pebbles into a snifter-shaped bowl.

You’ve probably heard about — or perhaps attended — an evening of dabbing at canvases in a bar’s backroom, creating a painted landscape or still life by following an on-site artist’s coaching. Several local companies haul brushes and easels into restaurants for the popular activity, which typically costs between $35 and $50 — drinks and appetizers not included.

Plant Nite, an offshoot of the Boston-based Paint Nite, has pivoted from pigments on palettes to dirt in planters. The first Plant Nites began in January, with evenings devoted to terrarium-building scheduled at several local bistros.

“There’s a large group of people who don’t want to paint; it makes them feel nervous, a little vulnerable,” said Ashley Erickson, the Plant Nite licensee in the Twin Cities. “Everyone can do this project. People are behind their desks or their screens, communicating by e-mail. At the end of the day, they want to get their hands on a physical object.”

‘Something new’

Three years ago, Erickson, now 26, was wondering how to use her fine arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She heard about Paint Nite and snapped up the local rights. Now she has a staff of eight who run evening art workshops in two dozen establishments, from downtown taverns to suburban bowling alleys.

“I’m starting Plant Nite at the places where I’ve built the closest relationships,” she explained. “They trust me with something new.”

On a recent night, a mostly female group of 30 settled in at five tables to follow Erickson’s methodical guidance in building their miniature gardens.

“I’m not good at painting. I tried it once but it didn’t really turn out,” said Kristine Owens, 40, of Stillwater, who sat across the table from a friend and former co-worker. “I saw this advertised on Facebook and I said, ‘Who else wants to do this?’ I like to come downtown and try new places.”

As the wait staff dropped off platters and glasses, participants began by putting pebbles in the bottom of their bowls, then layered in dirt and prepared the roots of the plants.

It’s a low-stakes process that relies on tried-and-true design principles: The materials include a variety of textures and colors, and participants each plant three succulents, following the premise that an odd number of objects holds greater eye appeal.

“I don’t have any gardening experience, and I thought I would be out of my depth,” said Alli Rekow, 26. “But this looks fine, and I hear these plants are hard to kill.”

The metro area is part of the national rollout of the concept. Plant Nite kicked off in seven metro markets, with plans to put down roots in communities coast-to-coast later this year.

According to Plant Nite’s communication manager, the Twin Cities launch was the strongest in the country; there were 400 Groupon purchases in the first four hours, with patrons paying a discounted $35 for a $50 ticket to barroom planting events.

Winter Rx

“Is it because it’s cold there and people want to get their hands on something alive? I don’t know,” said Plant Nite’s Courtney Osgood from Boston, where the concept was beta tested.

“We’ve seen that there’s a demand for activities for adults to connect with friends and be playful in a social environment,” she said. “We put a big focus on the overall experience, not just the finished product. But people like to take home a memento, something they can look at three weeks or three months later and remember the night.”

The business model is simple. Plant Nite makes its money when attendees buy an online ticket. Ashley Erickson and her Plant Nite crew bring in materials — moss, potting soil, decorative pebbles — along with aprons, trowels, plastic tablecloths and latex gloves.

The bars that play host provide the space and keep all of the food and beverage tabs that participants ring up.

“We said, let’s give it a shot, and the first one sold out,” said Rob Delmont, general manager of Mason’s Restaurant Barre in downtown Minneapolis.

“Our business is event-driven. People stop in when they’re going to a Timberwolves game or before or after a show. Some nights there’s not much going on downtown, and this brings people in who otherwise wouldn’t be here.”

Customer bait

Will we someday reminisce with our grandchildren about how we used to go to bars, to drink? Today, many watering holes offer bait beyond booze — bingo nights, trivia contests, meat raffles. In larger cities, revelers can choose to hit cocktail bars, wine bars, cider bars.

“It’s a highly competitive industry, and per capita alcohol consumption is down, so it’s no wonder bars are looking for a niche to capture part of the market,” said Andrew Alvarez, an analyst who specializes in hospitality and the food-service industry for IbisWorld.

“This was originally what karaoke was for, appealing to a wider demographic and giving people a new reason to come in,” he said.

In their first decade of existence, paint-and-sip evenings have proved their staying power. Paint Nite, for example, now offers events in 1,400 cities worldwide.

But not everyone sees the same potential in the terrarium-building activity.

“Some concepts do better than others. This is a novelty; I would say it’s not the best long play,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with the NPD Group.

“This is a restaurant. Bringing in plants and dirt? Around food? That seems way out of the box to me. I think it’s a fad, but operators are challenged to drive traffic to their businesses, especially during the week. I’m curious to see if this will have appeal.”

In reality, even an inexperienced gardener could likely assemble a terrarium in 10 minutes at home. The Plant Nite event, with step-by-step instructions and pauses for refreshment, extends that to an hour and a half or so, a slightly shorter time commitment than a night devoted to painting.

Participants appeared pleased with their handiwork as they walked out of the event.

“I know I will be able to set this out and enjoy it,” said Renee Penney, 49, of Cottage Grove. “If I painted, it would go into the closet.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.