Outdoors, catered, and intimate, a luxury pop-up picnic is a novel way to have an elevated dining experience with a small group at one of Rhode Island’s iconic locales. While restaurants shuttered and events were canceled due to COVID-19 throughout 2020 and 2021, pop-up picnic companies formed and quickly created a thriving cottage industry in southern New England, primarily driven by innovative female entrepreneurs. 

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Salisbury, owner of Premier Picnics.

But now that pandemic restrictions have lifted and the beleaguered hospitality industry is preparing for a much-needed bustling summer season, will the pop-up picnic trend fade away? Not anytime soon, according to owners of three local pop-up picnic brands who say their schedules are already loaded with spring and summer bookings.

“We are still seeing many incoming reservations for our Summer 2022 season and are grateful that so many are still interested in enjoying luxury picnic experiences,” said Alexandra Salisbury, who co-owns Premier Picnics, based in Lincoln, RI along with her mother, Elizabeth Salisbury. 

Photo courtesy of Alexandra Salisbury, owner of Premier Picnics.

Similarly, Ashly Whalen, owner of Menta Graze, said not much has changed since she launched her business in April 2020, other than “more clients feeling more comfortable with being in larger group picnics.”

For Hollie Mitchell, owner of Newport Picnic Co., growing awareness and interest in upscale pop-up picnic experiences has led her to expand her services and offerings. “We now host indoor and backyard picnics, which are great ways to host a private event in the comfort of your home without the hassle of the set up and clean up”, she said. “We have also added on table styling services for both small and large events now that venues are allowed to host larger gatherings.” 

So, what makes the luxury pop-up picnic more than a temporary gathering style for the pandemic era and something that’s here to stay?

Innovation and ingenuity

The creative spirit, willingness to take on risk and diverse areas of expertise have contributed to the success of these female founders so far, positioning them to continue to adapt and evolve their business models post-pandemic. The Salisburys, Whalen and Mitchell all come from a variety of backgrounds, from teaching and nursing to hospitality, events and floral design.

For wedding industry veteran Ashly Whalen who was laid off when the pandemic decimated her industry, the idea for Menta Graze happened when she decided to create a picnic for her family on the lawn of a Newport mansion. Her elaborate, curated setup caught the eye of many passersby who inquired if they could hire her to design one for them.

”I thought to myself, I could absolutely do this for other people,” she said. “I own the product already, know the industry, and love holding events in Newport. So I made a website, social media accounts, LLC, and insurance and it was a huge hit! We were sold out for the season within a few months of going public.”

Similarly for the Salisburys, the “eureka” moment happened when they realized they could host their own dinner parties in local parks and beaches, without having to sacrifice the luxury experience of real flatware, comfortable seating, and ambiance. “It was this concept that led us to luxury picnics,’ Salisbury said. “My mother and I thought that our idea should be brought to the public so that others could enjoy the same luxury outdoor dining experience with their loved ones.” They started thinking seriously about the idea in December 2020 and officially launched Premier Picnics in April 2021.

Newport Picnic Co’s Hollie Mitchell, a special education teacher, also launched her business in the spring of 2021 out of a simple desire to bring people together again. “When we weren’t able to be around friends and family with COVID restrictions, it quickly became apparent that connections with those we love are what we live for,” she said. She operates Newport Picnic Co. with the help of her best friend and expert picnic stylist Shannon Hookanson, an Aquidneck Island native.

Carving niches within a niche

While these pop-up picnic businesses primarily cater to a female 20- and 30-something demographic (think bachelorette parties, birthdays, engagements and showers), the companies have strategically differentiated their brands with special packages, unique customizations and signature aesthetics.

Premier Picnics’ package experiences are based on the five counties of Rhode Island:  Newport, Washington, Kent, Providence, and Bristol.  “We used the counties as inspiration by drawing on the colors of the ocean, the beautiful architecture, or the historic landmarks,” Alexandra Salisbury said.  (WhatsUpNewp readers can use the code WhatsupNewport10 to get a 10% discount on any Premier Picnics package if they book before June 1.)

At Menta Graze, Whalen strives to bring a signature boho style to her luxury picnic experiences, as well as the ability to support large events. “I just love boho and all neutral or natural looks,” Whalen said.  “Pampas grass, gold, brass touches, and natural wood.” She offers three different types of event packages which are priced per person, as well as custom theme picnics. For the month of May Whalen is offering a special discount package for up to 4 people for $100.

For Newport Picnic Co. pop-ups, Mitchell said she finds design inspiration from history, trends, and the streets of Newport. “We are always looking for inspiration in Newport design and architecture,” she said. “With such a diverse mix of opulent, historic, coastal, and modern design all in the downtown Newport area, there’s no shortage of inspiration all around us.” Mitchell’s picnic experiences start at $229 for two people and can accommodate groups of 20+ people. 

Location, location, location

In Southern New England, pop-up picnic businesses may have particular staying power thanks to plenty of beautiful outdoor public spaces to set up in—especially in state parks.

“We mostly operate in Rhode Island State Parks,” Alexandra Salisbury said. “Our favorite location is Colt State Park!  It has a range of beautiful scenery, either up against the water, atop a hill overlooking the bay, or tucked away under shady trees.” Other popular locations for Premier Picnics include Goddard Memorial in Warwick, Lincoln Woods in Lincoln, and Brenton Point in Newport. 

Focused primarily on Newport County, Newport Picnic Co also hosts a large number of picnics overlooking the ocean at Brenton Point as well as other Aquidneck Island locations.

“Brenton Point is a favorite location of ours and our clients!,” Mitchell said. “We can also host picnics at Newport Polo with a tailgate or chalet reservation.” She also mentioned Little Gold in downtown Newport as an ideal location for indoor picnics in the cooler months and in case of rain. 

Whalen echoes the enthusiasm for Brenton Point. “We are at Brenton Point on Ocean Drive every weekend,” she said. “It is our #1 spot.” Whalen said Menta Graze will also be working with Newport Film this season at all Thursday film locations and shared that she has partnered with The Chanler to offer picnic options for their guests.

DIY and elbow grease

Another reason that southern New England’s savvy pop-up picnic entrepreneurs have staying power is because they’re resourceful. Whether building their own furniture and decor or hunting through local thrift stores to source special, one-of-a-kind pieces for their memorable picnic experiences, they’re not afraid of a little elbow grease.

“I handmade our picnic tables myself after many design trials,” Mitchell said. “Newport Picnic Co.’s decor is a mixture of modern and vintage items found at local thrift stores and yard sales, making the setups unique and intentionally designed.”

At Menta Graze, Whalen says she and her team “now officially make all of our tables, backdrops, floral arrangements, and signage.”

Supporting other hospitality businesses

For the components of a luxe pop-up picnic experience that cannot be DIYed—particularly food and equipment for larger sized events— these entrepreneurs partner with other local business owners. In doing so, owners of Southern New England’s pop-up picnic companies are bolstering business for a variety of restaurants, caterers and event industry companies in and around Rhode Island. They have their favorites, but vendors are typically chosen based on where the picnic is happening.

For Premier Picnics, some of the Salisurys’ favorite vendors are Sin in Providence, Boarding with Bo from Warwick, and The Beach House in Bristol. 

Photo courtesy of Ashly Whalen, owner of Menta Graze.

At Menta Graze, Whalen offers boutique boxed lunches through a catering partnership with  Social Table Experience. For her large events, she partners with vendors like itslit RI, Tommy Dee at Evolution Entertainment, and PEAK Event Services. “We also source fun add-on vendors such as Redbone Events and their vintage red truck and Le Petit Pouf, a cotton candy vendor.”

Newport Picnic Co. works with local vendors to offer some especially decadent, locally-crafted charcuterie. “We partner with Bellevue Boards and Chelcuterie by Chelsea to deliver gorgeous charcuterie spreads,” Newport Picnic Co. owner Hollie Mitchell said. “We also collaborate with Island Time and other local vendors to coordinate delivery and catering for interested clients.”

Looking ahead

The Ocean State’s pop-up picnics businesses not only appear here to stay— they’re growing.

Newport Picnic Co, for example, is hiring, Mitchell said. Think you’d make a good picnic stylist? Contact her at newportpicnicco@gmail.com.

For Menta Graze, the business may have a storefront in the near future with a new rental concept. “We eventually would like to have a storefront in Newport and Bristol where you can rent a picnic basket, blanket, and more and enjoy a picnic wherever you like in Newport,” Whalen said. “We will retrieve the picnic basket from you when you are done with the picnic and you can walk away with ease.” 

Whalen also said she is offering an internship at Menta Graze for those looking to get experience in hospitality and is likely hiring for the 2023 season. Email her at mentagraze@gmail.com for more information.