Elaborate charcuterie boards. Instagrammable picnic setups. Private, do-it-yourself meals underneath the summer sun.
Al fresco dining trends exploded last year at the height of the pandemic — and now, as vaccination rates continue to climb, folks are heading back outdoors with a growing appetite for open-air eating.
Karlie Chen, 19, was in class at Cornell University last fall when she was tasked with building a restaurant concept centered around a COVID-19-friendly environment. Knowing to avoid brick-and-mortar, she envisioned a pop-up picnic business.
But the lightbulb didn’t dim after the semester ended. After returning home for winter break, Karlie described the idea to her brother, 27-year-old Austin Chen, and the two created a website to conduct a “test run” for OC Luxury Picnics.
“Literally within a day or two, we started to receive a lot of people who were interested in these pop-up luxury picnics,” Austin said. “So it was just kind of a wave after that.”
Operating in Southern California’s Orange County and Inland Empire, OC Luxury Picnics arranges extravagant picnics — from scouting the perfect location to laying out the full setup and ultimately cleaning it all up — to save customers the preparatory work.
Those looking to book a picnic can choose to host the event at a beach or a park, and will show up to see all furniture and decor ready to go. Food options include charcuterie boards, cupcake ferris wheels and breakable hearts with chocolate strawberries enclosed.
The company get requests for a wide range of occasions: date nights, birthdays, bridal showers, elopements, graduation parties.
“Demand has grown exponentially. Every week we get more and more [inquiries],” Karlie said. “But I'm not sure if this is because of the summer season, or if it's just something that will continue to grow.”
But the inundation of requests has enabled OC Luxury Picnics to expand beyond its initial service areas. Now, the startup serves multiple cities in the United States and one in Canada, focusing on locations where a picnic service is likely to gain popularity.
By either partnering with affiliated companies or launching a new branch themselves, the siblings have added pop-up picnic businesses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fresno, Seattle, Raleigh and Vancouver. The young entrepreneurs said they are also gauging interest for the service in Florida and Alabama.
Karlie and Austin had kicked off their business by setting up each picnic themselves. Finding the right inventory was a learning curve; they swapped out five or six different picnic tables before finding one they could conveniently transport to the beach.
“When we first started as business owners, you always have to know every single detail that goes on every step of the way,” Austin said. “You have to figure out what's the best equipment to use, what's the best logistics in terms of transporting everything to the designated areas.”
But about two or three months in, bookings spiked as the summer heat rolled in, and the pair began to hire staff for help. Now, they rarely handle the individual setups.
At the moment, the cofounders say OC Luxury Picnics remains a side hustle — Karlie is still a full-time college student, and Austin manages two independent music schools while teaching at Columbia University.
Still, the two are eager to expand to more regions across the country. Startups from a variety of cities are reaching out to form an affiliation or become a sister company, they said. And at this point, the two feel they have enough experience to be comfortable mentoring these new businesses.
“A lot of these people who reach out to us, they were maybe parents or other small business owners who lost everything because of COVID,” Austin said. “Just hearing their worries, it really motivates us to want to help them. At the same time, we also want to test our own ability to see how big we can bring this.”