Like many small-business owners, Austin B. Chen, 26, had to pivot during the pandemic. In early 2020, he lost a lot of students and had to close the brick-and-mortar locations for Miredo, a music school in New York, and Be Sharp Academy, a music, STEM, and SAT/ACT prep school in California, after moving the classes at his two learning centers online.
"I was so depressed at that time," says Austin, who is based in Chino Hills, California. "I literally built the schools from nothing. Every room, every student, every little thing that we had was all either designed, approved, or created by me. And to be forced to just throw it all away was difficult."
But closing those schools led Austin, his sister Karlie T. Chen, and his cousin, Mayari Chen, to an unexpected new side hustle that has taken off during the pandemic: hosting luxury picnics. Since they launched a little more than two months ago, the Chens have brought in more than $30,000. About 80% of that is profit, they say.
Video by Helen Zhao
"Honestly, if you were to tell me that I would have a picnic business, I would be kind of just in shock," Austin says.
"I'm definitely surprised about the amount of money that I've made as an entrepreneur," says Mayari, a 21-year-old in Rowland Heights, California, who studies nursing. "I've never really made this much before, just being a student."
Austin credits his sister Karlie, a Cornell University student, with the idea for the picnic business.
"She actually had a research project on how to kind of find a better restaurant concept. And she came out with the idea of straying away from brick-and-mortar," Austin says. "Because for a business, that's kind of a higher expense. And of course, if you take that out, the business is a lot [more] profitable. So she started to go more into kind of researching pop-up picnics."
At the same time, Austin was working on his web design skills at home and decided to build a mock website advertising a luxury picnic service in Orange County, California.
"I had no expectations from it. I just wanted to use it to practice my technical skills," Austin says. "But literally one day after launching, we had like two inquiries. And I was like, 'Well, this must be a coincidence. It's kind of — you know, I just launched yesterday. There's no way.'"
"So we waited another day," he says, "and we had more inquiries."
After the initial shock, Austin and Karlie called their cousin Mayari and they decided to take on the business themselves since "the business model seems to be something that we can handle," Austin says. "And from there, it's just history."
OC Luxury Picnics has done more than 60 picnics for parties of 2 to 20 people since launching in late-February 2021. Total revenue also includes income secured for more than 20 reservations for picnics at a future date.
After making a booking, clients arrive to a luxurious picnic set up at a location of their choice. The base package includes that setup, along with a charcuterie board and beverages. It costs extra for bonus items like a paint kit, a cupcake Ferris wheel, fondue, sushi, mini-cakes, or a floral backdrop.
A picnic for two costs $240. Each additional person, up to four people, costs an extra $30. Picnics of five or more are $70 per person.
The Chens have already hired three employees to help with setting up and breaking down.
OC Luxury Picnics is one of many luxury picnic businesses that have taken off in the U.S. in the last year, as people have flocked to outdoor experiences during the pandemic.
"The schools required months and months of planning and the progress was a slow and steady one," Austin says. "With the picnics, it was like a rush of clients. We had customers wanting to book, and the excitement was from seeing how I was able to get clients at just a fast pace compared to the schools."
The momentum has "opened my mind to starting new businesses that maybe don't require the traditional brick-and-mortar, as we never know what sort of outcome we will have if a disaster would hit again," Austin says.
Mayari says OC Luxury Picnics has given her confidence to start more entrepreneurial side hustles in the future instead of relying solely on income as an employee.
"It definitely feels empowering to have that title of being an entrepreneur," she says. "Never in a million days would I imagine calling myself that. And I definitely can see myself doing something other than this in the future as well."
The sudden unexpected success of OC Luxury Picnics after losing a lot of business at Miredo and Be Sharp Academy has taught the Chens to not fear failure or the unknown.
"With businesses and entrepreneurship, nothing can be planned. Even if you kind of create everything to the finest detail, you never know what's going to happen," Austin says.
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