The image of a picnic has remained relatively unchanged for decades: a gingham blanket here, a basket of snacks there, maybe spread out across a grassy knoll if you’re lucky. Some advanced picnickers may upgrade with folding chairs or fancy cutlery, but either way, simplicity is the point: Just pack a sandwich and get outside. A picnic may not count as roughing it, but it’s traditionally been one of the easiest and most low-key ways to enjoy the pleasures of the great outdoors.
The past few years have seen the rise of a luxury picnic industry, mostly in response to the pandemic. They are designed to not only take the effort out of picnicking, but to transform the very concept of the picnic itself. Where once there may have been a soft blanket on bare grass, now there is a boho-chic tent festooned with plush rugs and throw pillows. Instead of relying on trees and birds to provide ambience, expect low tables with formal place settings, candlesticks, and flowers. There are heated bubble tents to enable winter picnics and fringed umbrellas to shield guests from the summer sun. And instead of your own packed lunch, upscale picnic companies offer charcuterie plates, brunch baskets, macaron towers, and sparkling wine served on ice.
When Michelle Ison founded Picnic and Peonies in Washington, D.C., in September 2020, she had seen a few companies offering prearranged luxury picnics, mostly on the West Coast. But the pandemic spurred her — and many others — into action. Ison, who had recently gotten engaged, was forced to cancel wedding-related events like a bachelorette party and bridal shower. She saw bespoke picnic operations as “a really cute, fun, and intimate way to safely celebrate special moments.”
Then again, during the height of COVID lockdowns, you didn’t need a special moment to want a prearranged, aesthetically pleasing picnic. With restaurants closed, Miriam Morales founded San Diego Picnics in 2020 “to offer people a special date night in a safe way,” she says. Instead of spending money on a night out, couples could use it to feel fancy in the park.
In theory, picnics require food, which may or may not come with the luxury picnic package. PikNYC offers meat and cheese platters, customizable cookies, and cupcakes, though founder Annie Seddington says a majority of her clients choose to bring their own food, either from home or a favorite restaurant. Morales says she initially tried to pick up food from restaurants or serve more elaborate meals, but it ultimately proved too challenging. She eventually opted for charcuterie, which won’t get cold by the time the whole scene is set up. Other companies push the boundaries of “picnic food” further, offering custom cakes, dessert carts, and experiential options like string quartets. Picnic and Peonies can provide s’mores or a chicken and waffles board, and Ison says they’re working on whole seafood towers next.
Of course, part of the appeal of a luxury picnic is being seen having a luxury picnic, and these arrangements are all profoundly Instagrammable. Morales, who is also a photographer, says her company grew in part out of a desire to create beautiful settings for proposals or engagement shoots. And Seddington says the romance of the setup explains why 90 percent of her business comes from couples. “There’s a very classic, romantic feeling to a picnic,” she says. “When it’s a customized event to surprise your loved one for an anniversary, proposal, birthday, or something along those lines, the gesture feels grand.”
But when Instagram is flooded with similar-looking proposals, the intimacy of the gesture shrinks. Ison says she’s begun landing larger clients, with one corporate picnic seating 300 people. At that point, is it even a picnic, or just an outdoor event with snacks?
While luxury picnics may feel like they’re everywhere at the moment, the truth is that the conditions that once made them feel like a worthwhile indulgence have since changed. Restaurants have reopened; travel is less restricted. And the luxury picnic playing field has gotten more crowded (Google “luxury picnic [major city]” and see just how many options pop up). Cities have taken notice, cracking down on required permitting and sometimes introducing new rules. “I might not be able to do as many picnics,” says Morales. “I’ve always wanted to follow city guidelines, and now they want us to get more permits.”
The future of the industry remains to be seen. While a luxury picnic is still more affordable than many venue rentals, there are only so many people willing to fork over $100 an hour to, essentially, sit on the ground and eat a cheese plate. Which is why some of these companies are shifting and expanding. Both Morales and Ison want to offer premade picnic baskets so customers can have DIY picnics at a lower cost. Seddington says she sees “more curated events and more customized options” happening in the industry.
The next time you see a picnic that looks too good to be true, there may very well be a professional behind it. But just remember: You can always throw a PB&J and a sheet in a backpack and have yourself a perfect picnic, too.
Marylu E. Herrera (she/her) is a Chicago-based Chicana collage, print media, craft, and fiber artist. Her collage work has been featured in the Cut, the Los Angeles Times, Bitch Media, Eater, and Punch.