MINNEAPOLIS –For her birthday this month, Nardos Sium decided to have a picnic in the park with three of her closest friends.
Sium’s celebration — in Minneapolis’ Lyndale Park on the north side of Lake Harriet — was far from your garden-variety picnic.
The plush rugs layered on the grass were covered with piles of rose- and cream-colored cushions. A vase of fresh pink roses and white hydrangeas sat on a low table. As the group snacked on an elaborate charcuterie plate, Sium’s goldendoodle puppy napped contentedly at their feet.
From a distance, the birthday picnic looked straight out of an 1800s painting — like Thomas Cole’s bucolic “A Pic-Nic Party,” or Claude Monet’s “Luncheon on the Grass.”
But the event, which Sium booked through a luxury picnic company called Perfect Picnic Co., was very on-point for 2021.
Scores of similar ventures around the world are capitalizing on a pandemic-fueled love of the outdoors and a desire to avoid crowded indoor spaces.
Dubbed “blanquets” in England and “power picnics” by the New York Times, these over-the-top outdoor gatherings also cater to the enduring desire to capture something to share on Instagram or TikTok.
Prices range from $100 for a picnic set up for two in a lace teepee at a Minneapolis park (the food is extra) to $10,000 for a Los Angeles company’s “extravagant picnic experience,” such as a private beachside sushi chef and roses by the dozens.
In Minnesota, more than a half-dozen pop-up picnic companies began operating this spring and summer, including Perfect Picnic Co., which was started by a veteran Minneapolis event planner, and Meerci Picnics, run by two Bethel University roommates. Other picnic providers include Posh Picnix, Checkered Blanket Picnic Co., Ohrye Experience Co. and Minnesota Picnic.
They all offer a “cottagecore” vibe and the same basic service: setting up a picnic spot with a low table on a blanket or rug, lots of pillows, fresh flowers and pretty place settings. Some include food and drinks in the package, while others have bring-your-own or pick a-la-carte offerings. A few include activities like painting or wine tasting. (Park alcohol rules vary, but some, including those in the Three Rivers Park District, do allow it.)
Sium booked her birthday gathering after seeing lush photos of a friend’s anniversary picnic on Instagram. It had been several years since she’d done much to mark her birthday.
“I just felt like doing something special,” she said.
After a year of walks in parks across the Twin Cities and packing her own picnics, Sium, who lives in Minneapolis, said she was ready for “a little bit of an upgrade.” Plus, all she had to do was invite her friends and show up.
The three-hour experience made her feel like she had traveled to another place.
“It was very, I would say, magical. The park itself, and then just the spread and the layout, it kind of felt like an out-of-country experience — like I was in London or Paris,” she said. “It was very surreal.”
With the trend already gaining popularity in other states, there was pent-up demand for posh picnics in Minnesota, once the weather warmed up this spring.
Would-be picnickers started contacting Perfect Picnic Co. owner Courtney Smallbeck as soon as she pivoted to picnics and launched her website in March. Her calendar has been full — setting up picnics in parks around the Twin Cities as well as in clients’ backyards — since she arranged her first picnic in May.
“I think a lot of people have really grown to love the concept of picnicking over the last year or so,” she said. “It’s really fun to do it in a very beautiful and chic way without having to do all the work that usually goes along with setting something like that up.”
Smallbeck partnered with Maple Grove charcuterie business From the Diner, which delivers meat and cheese boards to the picnic site. She also hunts for tableware and place settings in thrift and vintage stores to give her settings the right look.
“I really love vintage dinnerware, things that you can’t buy in the store. It just adds that extra touch of something special, picking up an etched glass from the Depression era, instead of something that you bought at Target,” she said.
With this summer’s extreme heat and dry weather, one of the most difficult tasks for Smallbeck and other picnic planners has been finding appealing, relatively unscorched spots with enough shady tree cover.
Pillows, fresh flowers, china plates and stemware — it turns out that the trappings of today’s Instagram-worthy luxury picnics are in keeping with the humble outdoor event’s beginnings 200 years ago.
The word “picnic,” which hails from France, initially referred to indoor potluck parties where everyone in attendance brought a dish. The British moved the meal outdoors in the 1800s. Back then, having a picnic was no easy feat: Furniture, dishes, glassware and supplies had to be carted out to the countryside in wagons.
The picnic took off in the Victorian era, and moved to America as the Industrial Revolution sparked a desire to return to nature. By the 1890s, the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune regularly chronicled union and church picnics, some of which featured waltzing contests, fishing and foot races and the attendant prizes.
But as the turn of the century neared, some trendwatchers, including Minnesota’s Virginia Enterprise newspaper, were already counseling a simpler approach to picnics.
“Only very necessary dishes — such as cups — should be taken,” an 1895 Enterprise article read, suggesting using wooden dishes instead of china. “The camping-out sensation will be increased and the enjoyment and hilarity of the party will be greater if most of the table paraphernalia be left at home.”
Blankets and pillows gave way by the 1930s, when the National Park Service started building picnic tables (as we know them today) in campgrounds. Formality took another hit when plastic utensils were mass-produced in the 1950s.
Now, decades later, lavish picnics on the grass, vintage silver cutlery and all, are having a pandemic moment.
This isn’t surprising to Miranda Barker, a Minneapolis social worker who launched Checkered Blanket Picnic Co. as a side business this spring.
“I think that people just wanted a way to connect with others and enjoy the outdoors in a safe way,” she said. “And so I think that picnics have just been the perfect way to do that.”
And then there’s the influence of social media.
“This intimacy of being together in an unusual environment and just moving your date to the outdoors, you slowly have seen it kind of become more and more elevated and more picture-worthy,” Barker said.