Posh picnics take off in Melbourne parks, complete with staff for the loo queue

Our Boys and Girls staff serve wine at a luxury lunch styled by Melbourne Picnic Collective.
Our Boys and Girls staff serve wine at a luxury lunch styled by Melbourne Picnic Collective. Photo: Simon Schluter

To the list of things COVID has upended, shaken then reinvented, let us add the humble picnic. 

Once a straightforward proposition (locate picnic rug in shed, dust off Esky, don't forget the ice), it's newly de rigueur to outsource the hard graft of setting up, bringing the food, serving drinks and ensuring a healthy ratio of scatter cushions to guests.

But wait, it gets even better. How about someone to stand in the loo queue at the park and send you a text when they're near the front? Or getting the leftovers packaged up and delivered back to your home? 

Urban Foodies' virtual team building kit has been a hit with corporate clients.
Urban Foodies' virtual team building kit has been a hit with corporate clients. Photo: Supplied

With indoor gatherings of any meaningful size still verboten, public parks are proving the new staging ground for social engagement. And haute picnics have raced to the top of the COVID-safe entertainment pops.

Susie Robinson, of Our Boys & Girls, was quick to pirouette to posh picnics as soon as the easing of restrictions allowed. Her events company limped through lockdown with staff redeployed as delivery drivers, but they're back wielding champagne coupes and hand sanitiser for a clientele eager to splash out after a year of social austerity. 

"As soon as we were allowed out of our houses people were picnicking like I've never seen, she says. "We can't have a traditional knees-up in a venue, so people are wanting to give their picnic a glow-up to make it really special."

Our Boys and Girls catering staff member Richie Meadows on cocktail duties.
Our Boys and Girls catering staff member Richie Meadows on cocktail duties.  Photo: Simon Schluter

The new picnic valets have every base covered. They'll organise food from your favourite restaurant or caterer, pick up your favourite drop from the bottle shop, provide you with a "powder room pamper pack" (with toilet paper, hand sanitiser and soap) then pack it all down post-event. 

"Not being locked into one supplier, people have the opportunity to be as creative and luxe as they like," says Robinson. "Plus it's not easy to run around carrying all that stuff in a Camilla kaftan and wedges."

Tennille Younger was a pre-COVID fashion events coordinator who founded the Melbourne Picnic Collective in October and has found herself busy with clients catching up on celebrations including birthdays and engagements. 

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"I'm organising a small picnic in the Royal Botanic Gardens for a guy to surprise his fiancee in the same place and on the same day they were meant to be married," she says. 

"There's a lot of joy in creating a moment for people. We've all realised it's about experiences and memories rather than material things."

Lovely though they are, upmarket picnics are small fry compared to the large-scale events corporates previously staged with their expense accounts. Event catering in Australia is worth $3.5billion annually, according to market research company IBISWorld, but the 1005 registered catering business in Victoria came to a grinding halt with the start of lockdowns. 

"Many reported a 100 per cent drop in revenue," says Restaurant & Catering Industry Association chief executive Wes Lambert. "The bottom fell out of the industry, and functions and events will be slowest to recover as most states have very strict caps on events."

Urban Foodies is one such corporate caterer. Owner Georgie Vile spent the year since March turning her energies to home delivery food boxes. It's a segment of the market that's booming thanks to corporates using them as tokens of appreciation for staff and clients, and a new trend of private schools sending them to families to enjoy during virtual graduation ceremonies. 

"One corporate client calls it a boost box and the staff all cook together virtually," she says. "It's proven really popular and I see it continuing because it's a way of bringing together teams across Australia. It's just one of those things we never thought of until COVID forced our hand."