After most of her contracts as a freelance event planner were canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, Julie Ellison found herself living with her parents again and working a string of odd jobs: as a cashier at a fireworks stand, a maid, a dog-sitter and a manager at a doughnut shop, to name a few.
Then, scrolling through Instagram one day, an idea struck: a pop-up picnic business.
"I couldn't sleep because I was so excited about it," said Ellison, 36, who moved home to St. Louis from San Diego in late May.
She had heard of pop-up picnics in California before, but knew they weren't yet as popular in the Midwest. And she knew that, with restrictions on indoor dining and large gatherings due to COVID-19 still in place, people were craving new, inventive ways to be together outside. Ellison styles and sets up the picnic before customers arrive, so she'll be able to maintain a safe social distance.
"The last picnic you had was probably with an old blanket and some sandwiches," she said. "This is an experience. It's different. It's elegant."
Ellison scoured Goodwill for budget finds, like vintage wine glasses, and stocked up on table runners, candles and lanterns from a wedding company that was liquidating.
"I found a table on Facebook marketplace for free, so my dad and I went to pick it up and then we started cutting the legs off inch by inch to see what the perfect table height would be, so you could get your legs underneath and comfortably fit there," she said.
Ellison got her business license last month and launched Alpaca Picnic (say the name out loud to get the pun), which is now open for bookings in the St. Louis area.
Picnics find a unique niche amid pandemic
The Live Events Coalition, a nonprofit created in response to the pandemic, estimates that the industry will lose about 80% of overall revenue — and, according to one survey of event company owners conducted in Oregon, 70% of them expect to be out of business by January 2021.
Yet pop-up picnics have proven to be one sliver of the industry that is not only surviving, but flourishing.
Lauren Kimmons, owner of Pop Up Picnic Co. in San Diego, told TMRW that her business increased more than tenfold in recent months.
"It's hard to share those numbers, because you don't want to make light of a pandemic," she said. "But the encouraging thing is that people are going outside and they're doing it in a safe way, so we're still able to provide that experience of gathering without the stress of, 'Am I going to get sick?'"
Kimmons has cut down on party sizes and started to plate food individually, instead of family-style sharing. "Unfortunately, that means no more pretty charcuterie boards," she said.
Wendy Weston, owner of Perfect Picnic in New York City, said she's seen the same spike in interest.
"When the pandemic hit, we were very fortunate to be in a position where our business model still worked, which we are incredibly grateful for," Weston said.
With winter around the corner, Weston has invested in a couple of igloos to keep people warm. Ellison said she's considering portable space heaters.
Health experts have stressed that outdoor gatherings are less risky than being indoors (this story explains how ventilation and fresh air affect COVID-19 spread), so that's one reason people are gravitating toward picnics.
But Weston thinks there's something else, too.
"People just really need something special, and to feel a little bit of a magical moment, which we've all been lacking," she said. "People are looking for a little bit of escapism, and by creating and curating this special experience for them, we've been able to do that successfully."