The Power Picnic Is Spreading

With outdoor meals one of the few pleasures sanctioned during the pandemic, companies are forming to help you think beyond wicker basket and frayed blanket.

By Lia Picard

Emily Hecht takes her new role of “picnic designer” very seriously. Ms. Hecht arranges a picnic by layering neutral and blue-hued blankets incongruously and setting a low wooden table on top of them with a flowing white table runner.

She lays down a place mat and then creates a setting of alternating dishes — white porcelain, white and blue-patterned melamine — and gold cutlery. She scours local vintage markets for glassware and candle holders. No detail is spared, right down to the royal blue vases inherited from her great-grandfather filled with eucalyptus stems.

While picnics are certainly not new, the pandemic has brought a surge of over-the-top outdoor dining experiences. “I think the look we’re going for is a little — I don’t love this word — but luxury,” said Ms. Hecht, 29, who started her company, Gather Picnic Co., in Atlanta this July with her husband, Drew Hecht, 29. “And I think when you’re putting together a birthday party in your backyard, you want it to feel a little different. I don’t want anyone to ever be like, why didn’t I just do this myself? It’s like, no, every piece on our table, the vases, the candle holders, the little dried flowers that we put in the napkins feel special.”

Restaurants across the country have begun to reopen, but people don’t necessarily feel ready to go back yet, even if sitting outdoors. Why not make a picnic in backyard or nearby park instead?

While a checkered blanket on the grass with a wicker basket is standard-issue equipment, the picnics flooding Instagram today hark back to paintings like Monet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” (1865), which depicts a group of well-heeled men in bowler hats and suits, and women, dresses splayed on a white tablecloth, schmoozing over a spread of wine, fruit, cake and roasted fowl.

Mayte Soriano, 30, of Temecula, Calif., created Wonderland Picnics in July after feeling “over the moon” about a picnic she and her husband shared in the San Bernardino mountains. “I wanted to make people feel the same way,” she said. “I want them to experience the outdoor experience and how romantic it can be to have a celebration outdoors and not just in a restaurant.” Other companies are also designing highly stylized experiences for the bored and cooped up. Gather, for example, has two themes to choose from: the pink-toned “Venice, California” or the blue-and-white “Milos, Greece.” The Hechts don’t provide food, though some companies do, and return after three hours to break down the picnic.

Most companies put a chalkboard sign on display near the picnic with the organizer’s name or words of felicitation. Sometimes there’s even a mirror for selfies, because why go through the effort of putting on real clothes if it’s not going to be documented?

In Manhattan, Wendy Weston, 50, the owner of Perfect Picnic, chuckles when someone asks if she created her company as a response to the pandemic. She actually started it in 2011 after a trip to the Amalfi coast of Italy.

“I was always that person who had a bottle of wine, cheese and meat and olives in my bag,” Ms. Weston said. “And it was hilarious actually looking back, but I was always ready for a moment.”

Now, she creates scenes year-round in places like Central Park and the Hamptons. The experiences she offers run the gamut from “The Gold Picnic” ($375) to the “Hamptons Helicopter Ride Beach Picnic” ($8,300).

The most popular option this summer has been the “Social Distance Picnic Party” ($1,000), which includes food for 10 to 12 people, blankets, parasols and corn hole. “Remember to stay two baguettes apart,” the website cheekily warns. She also has a picnic supply store on the Upper West Side, across the street from Central Park.

In a year of dashed plans, people look to these occasions to fill in for delayed celebrations and milestones. Kaleigh Richards, 25, in Denver was one of the many brides who had to postpone her wedding. This was the right decision, she said, but she hired Denver Picnic Co. to create a surprise evening for her fiancé (their pup tagged along, too) to mark the day.

The table sported gold chargers and pink roses in a white vase along with pink and cream cushions to sit on. The bride-to-be wore a white dress, had her hair and makeup done and hired a photographer. The evening set her back around $450, but she pointed out, “people aren’t going out to dinner as much, or doing entertainment and concerts. So it’s all of that money that you would put maybe elsewhere, you can put toward something like this.”

Sam Chin, an events professional, celebrated her 30th birthday with a picnic in Manhattan’s Battery Park, after coming across the company Une Table By Tania and becoming smitten with the idea of an elevated outdoor meal in the park. Finger sandwiches were served, but her half-dozen guests weren’t focused on eating.

“A lot of them hadn’t seen each other in five months,” Ms. Chin said. “So it was more so just about the experience and socializing.”

Sometimes the picnic alone is enough of a reason to celebrate. Eni Popoola, a lifestyle blogger and student at Columbia Law School, had plans to travel to Jamaica in August but had to cancel, so she set up at a socially distant garden party in Gantry State Park in Queens.

She was inspired by Chinyere Adogu, an Instagram influencer who posted a photo of her own elaborate picnic. “That was really the thing that clued me into the idea of, like, oh, a picnic doesn’t just have to be a blanket and a book, this can be something that is an event, a display, a setup,” Ms. Popoola said.

So, she swapped the beach towel for a picnic blanket and organized her own spread. Picnic platters were purchased from Perfect Picnic, a basket from Bed Bath & Beyond. She already had trays on hand, from Ikea. “All of it was, I guess, a production,” she said.

Wearing a floral organza dress designed by Asiyami Gold and clutching a parasol, Ms. Popoola, 25, posed on a blanket surrounded by charcuterie boards and a basket filled with wine bottles. “I mean, honestly, I’m someone who cares about aesthetics to an extent, so I really enjoyed how it looked like it was something that I could’ve catered, but it really was something that I put together myself,” she said.

Most of the new picnics are decidedly not about food. Instead, the picnic goers find allure in creating a style moment in an otherwise mundane time. People aren’t going to these soirees dressed in gym shorts; they’re digging into the closet and wearing clothes meant to be seen by people.

“It was the opportunity to showcase the best summer outfits, which is another impact of coronavirus,” Ms. Popoola said. “I haven’t really been going places, and I had this beautiful dress I wanted to wear that really gave me summer picnic vibes.”

Cooler weather, though, isn’t going to bring picnic season to a halt this year. At Gather, the Hechts have plans to introduce a Santa Fe theme, which “has more of that fall vibe,” Ms. Hecht said, with extra blankets.

“I think people still love to be outdoors,” she said. “And maybe they are doing it by their fire pit at their house, if they have one, and just figuring out ways to make it cozy and still continue the outdoor experience.”

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