How a Utah group aims to make picnics cool again — with a blanket, food and friends

Sheltered under a tree in Salt Lake City’s Warm Springs Park on a hot June day, McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker laid a red-checkered blanket down on the ground.

Then they set out a simple but picturesque spread: Pears, grapes, cheese, bread, tins of sardines, bright pink radishes pickled in Nebeker’s own kitchen, and a strawberry rhubarb pie with pansies baked into the criss-cross of the crust.

Both of them are an old hand at putting together picnics. Since 2017, they’ve been part of the Salt Lake Picnic Society, which they started along with Kendra Pugh (who helped open Tradition and was once the co-owner of the pantry staple company The Bearded Lady).

The founders said the society began as a group of friends in the food industry, who held picnics on Mondays and Tuesdays — which, for people who work in bars and restaurants, is the weekend.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fruit, bread, and cheese, part of a spread put out by McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker’s Salt Lake Picnic Society in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

“Mostly I started it to get my service industry friends outside on our days off to share good food and drink, since that’s what we all do,” said Pugh, who relocated to Texas last year. “I was happy we did it — we had a lot of fun, and amazing spreads. I just really want to get people excited about sharing good food, especially in Utah’s gorgeous spaces.”

The society’s last picnic, in Jordan Park, happened in the fall of 2019. After Pugh moved to Texas and everything shut down during the pandemic, the society went dormant, but its first public event in two years will happen in late June. (The date will be announced on the Salt Lake Picnic Society’s Instagram page, @slcpicnicsociety.)

Wallace said that before the pandemic, the picnics had organically expanded to include people who were more peripheral to the food industry, as well as like-minded friends.

“We just started throwing these picnics,” Wallace said, “and we were all food-obsessed, so they would be maybe a little more over-the-top than the average picnic. Which was always really fun. And then we started getting more people interested and involved. Kendra started casually posting images of our picnics on social media, and people were like, ‘What’s the deal? I want to come to this!’”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Panzanella salad, part of a spread put out by McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker’s Salt Lake Picnic Society in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Wallace and Nebeker said they want the society to continue to move in that direction. “Griffen and I were talking, and we were like, we should make the Picnic Society a thing. We should do it, and have it be a big community gathering — centered around food people and industry workers, but open to anyone,” she said. “It’s not exclusive. We want anyone and everyone to come.”

Nebeker, who is a chef at the Post Office Place Downtown, said he also sees the society as a lure to get people into some of Salt Lake City’s underappreciated and less-used green spaces — like Warm Springs Park, Kay Rees Park and Faultline Gardens Park — more quirkier spots, like Gilgal Gardens. “All the local curiosities are kind of fun, in my opinion,” he said.

They say they also want to keep their events low-key and spontaneous, so announcements of picnics will happen via Instagram a day or two before gatherings. Partly that’s a way to keep events from getting too crowded, Wallace said. “But we also want to maintain the spontaneity, and have people be like, ‘When’s the next picnic?’”

“We don’t want to lose the informality, ever,” Nebeker said, adding that the fun thing about picnics is you can put as much or as little effort into as you like — and that people shouldn’t feel embarrassed about bringing simple or non-extravagant things, or just showing up empty-handed. Wallace said they’re still guided by Pugh’s philosophy, which was to keep things simple, but high-quality.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mackerel and smoked oysters, part of a spread put out by McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker’s Salt Lake Picnic Society in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

“It doesn’t need to be fussy,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be extravagant. The best food you’ll ever eat just uses really good ingredients, done really well, without being over the top.”

Nebeker and Wallace’s go-to picnic food place is the Downtown Farmers Market, where they buy loaves from Bread Riot Bakehouse or pies made by their friend, Cori Norton of Pie Party (who baked the pansy-topped pie).

“Caputo’s is like a one-stop shop for a picnic, aside from the produce,” Wallace said. In addition to the Farmers Market, for fruits and vegetables she likes Harmons, Liberty Heights Fresh and SLC Top Crops, a farmlet in Rose Park that takes orders online on Tuesdays for Wednesday pick-up.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Strawberry rhubarb pie, part of a spread put out by McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker’s SLC Picnic Society in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Wallace said she wants to support local businesses and local food systems, and sees the picnic society as a way to do that. Not only are picnic participants buying food from those local businesses, but they are experiencing the joys of a locally grown tomato or a handmade strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Another benefit the picnics offer is a chance for people to slow down and connect with people over food, Wallace said. “It looked like things were going to slow down during the pandemic,” she said, “and then they didn’t.” Picnics are a way of tapping the brakes, even as life goes back to its usual hyperactive speed.

“It’s almost a kind of ritual,” Nebeker added. “Like a time gone by. … Just eating tasty stuff in the park with your friends. It’s the best.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bottles of wine, part of a spread put out by McKenzie Wallace and Griffen Nebeker’s Salt Lake Picnic Society in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

How to enjoy a curated picnic

The Salt Lake City area has several companies that specialize in picnics, from one-person outfits that book via Instagram DM to full-on luxury caterers that will bring photo backdrops, flowers and tea sets. Most companies provide furniture — though that ranges from low-lying unpainted wooden tables to sleek Modernist outdoor tables and chairs — and most picnics generally run about two hours. Pricing varies considerably depending on the number of people, add-ons and travel.

Everyday’s a Picnic • Everydaypicnics.com • Offers themed luxury picnics for two, four or large groups. The company does all the set-up, including placing outdoor furniture. Food is charcuterie, or you can bring your own food for a $25 cleaning fee. Though their website’s in maintenance mode, they confirmed via email they are now accepting bookings online.

Lux Picnic SLC • schupickevents.com • Luxury picnics for up to eight people. Provides the picnic table, plates, cutlery, glasses and charcuterie, plus pillows and blankets, cards, ice bucket and trash. Add-ons include balloons, flowers, chocolate strawberries and more. Reservations can be made through their website.

Nuve Luxury Picnics • Nuveluxurypicnics.com • This company can organize a picnic for one person or up to 15, based on seven different themes. Picnics include outdoor furniture, all table settings, a parasol, bug spray, facial tissue, sunscreen, trash bags, and more. Add-ons include games and more elaborate charcuterie boards and boxes such as the brunch box, which has waffles and multiple jams and syrups. Book through their website.

The Picnic Aesthetic • thepicnicaesthetic.com • Offers six different picnic themes, including “rental” (they bring the blankets, place settings and decor, you bring the food), luxury (all furniture, place settings and food provided) and a brunch picnic with a breakfast -food charcuterie board. Book through their website.

The Picnic Collective • thepicniccollective.com/book-utah-valley • Custom luxury picnic caterer based in Utah and California offering five different themes. Includes set-up and take-down, picnic furniture and pillows, and grazing boards. Book through the website.

Picnic Street • instagram.com/picnicstreet.slc • Pop-up luxury picnics. For June, they are running a special, “To the Clouds,” featuring a picnic table, balloon backdrop, blankets and pillows, candles, table settings, a Bluetooth speaker, customized letter board and ice bucket. Book through Instagram.

Picnic Under the Stars • instagram.com/picnic_under_thestars, facebook.com/Picnic-Under-The-Stars • Pop-up picnics, primarily for special occasions. Picnic tables, place settings and decorations are provided. Book through Facebook or Instagram.

Picnic Up • instagram.com/picnicupslc • Pop-up “boho luxury picnics” that are primarily customized; serves charcuterie, which can be made vegan upon request. Book through Instagram.

Sol Picnic • solpicnics.com, instagram.com/solpicnic • Sol provides all furniture, table settings and decorations in advance of your arrival, but you bring the food and drinks. They return after your departure to clean everything up. Book at least 24 hours in advance, through their website, or via Instagram.

Zion Picnic Tours • zionpicnicexcursions.com • Offers four different themes, and offers set-up and take-down, as well as furniture, cushions, bug spray, grazing board, rugs, single-use plates and cutlery and more. Upgraded packages include picnic games, cake and a balloon arch. They book picnics in Salt Lake City and near Zion National Park. Schedule through the website.

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