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Elaborate, Catered Company Picnics Spare No Expense

Sharon Sola directs catering at the Torrance Marriott, but when the hotel holds its annual picnic for about 600 employees and their families next month, Sola said she plans to hire outsiders to stage it.

“While catering’s my business, when it’s our company picnic we prefer having someone do it for us. Otherwise, all the managers have to get involved,” she explained.

Sola also heads the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Catering Executives, some of whose members put on large and elaborate picnics, lawn parties and open-air wedding receptions. One is Kay Corning, whose 25-year-old Kay’s Gourmet Catering in Westlake Village averages better than one such affair a week during prime picnic season. Traditionally, that opens Tuesday, the Fourth of July, and runs through Labor Day, but picnic-packing in the Southland picks up even before Memorial Day and can run well into fall.

A recent company picnic that Corning catered featured usual barbecue fare: ribs, chicken, corn on the cob, beans, two kinds of salad and a client-provided cake decorated with the company’s logo. Corning’s crew also decorated the grounds in red, white and blue balloons and draped the tables in red and white.

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Such assignments add up to a $1-million annual business for Corning and her husband, Gordon. They employ 15 people full time and hire up to 50 to handle special events. But few caterers specialize in corporate accounts to the extent that Dallas entrepreneur Tom Lamon’s Employee Recreation Services does.

Lamon and his wife, Crystal, who organized ERS 10 years ago, claim that company picnics account for about 70% of the company’s $1 million in annual revenue. Christmas parties account for another 20%; marketing events and corporate retreats account for the rest.

ERS specializes in what Lamon calls “uncommon things.” It has on occasion chartered a cruise ship for three days, taken over an entire hotel and catered a six-course dinner for 2,500, and just last month threw a company picnic in suburban Dallas for Frito-Lay’s corporate employees that was built around a Renaissance theme (greatly aided by the availability of jousters, swordsmen and other period entertainers from the recently completed Dallas edition of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire). Last year when Frito-Lay chose a circus theme, ERS staged a live circus (two performances) and offered a display of sky diving, a “battle of bands” and roving clowns, jugglers and face painters.

Such elaborate affairs can run from $20 to $40 a person, including food and entertainment, he said.

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“There are a lot of party planners around,” Lamon said, “but we pretty much limit ourselves to groups of 200 or more--and exclusively for corporations.” He said he has been asked about franchising his business but would prefer to open company-owned branches elsewhere, with Southern California ranking high on his list of prospective regions.


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