Experts offer tips for perfect parties. While visitors flock to Colorado to enjoy some of the world’s greatest skiing, locals know that nothing beats the state’s easy, breezy days and beautiful cool summer nights. So it’s no wonder that so many of us love to entertain, to cast off the shadow of long winter days, and to move outdoors in literal celebration of our spectacular summer months. The problem is, entertaining can be challenging, and it can be intimidating. What to serve? How to decorate? Whom to invite? To get tips on planning — and hosting — the perfect soiree, we spoke with four women who work with clients to make sure their parties are creative, lively and memorable. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and it doesn’t have to be gourmet. As you will see, the secret to a fantastic party is all in the planning.
Occasions by Sandy
“Everyone knows how to do a barbecue,” says Sandy Tenenbaum, grande dame of local caterers. “The question becomes ‘What is a wow-factor party?’” For this party veteran, a great party is not just about fabulous food or music. “It’s what happens next that makes it sizzle. It’s about staying away from the traditional and expecting the unexpected. It’s about inviting people to a barbecue and having it turn into a slumber party!” Tenenbaum recently sold her company to her son and a partner, but clearly her creative juices are still going strong. She started in the business 41 years ago, working for a local caterer. “I brought him a lot of business, and then he fired me because he had enough customers and no longer needed me,” she recalls. “So two years later, I started my own business and never looked back.” After 39 years of running the show, Tenenbaum acknowledges that “this is a young person’s business,” but that over the years, the business just keeps getting better. “There are so many deals to be made and so many opportunities for parties that are much more than corporate functions. Putting on a great event is a lot more technical, and we must always put the customers front and center and take care of them in terms of promptness of service and delivery.”
Today, Tenenbaum says, most entertaining is done by people between the ages of 35 and 55. “Entertaining has gotten so expensive, and with the economy being in the current shape, this age group is better able to throw parties. If you have an outdoor party, you have to consider the expense of tenting, table and equipment rentals and such that will add to the cost,” she says. The most fun part though, according to Tenenbaum, is the creativity that can be brought to bear on any occasion. There are so many options today, and they don’t have to be expensive. Some of Tenenbaum’s suggestions include smaller portions and plates, such as tapas, or interactive chef stations, which allow guests to participate in food preparation. “In the entertainment fashion industry, the word of the day is deconstructed,” Tenenbaum says. “Trendy restaurants are doing deconstructed foods, which combine various elements that normally don’t go together, such as ravioli, flowers and sushi. It’s fun and not your typical menu.”
Budget-minded entertainers can put together fabulous parties simply by thinking outside the box and getting just a little bit creative. Tenenbaum cites a party she attended last summer, which took place in a backyard and was catered by Morton’s of Chicago, an upscale restaurant that does not offer this service. “It was fun, it was different, and the food was delicious,” she says. How else can you spice up a party? “Hire an actor to mingle with the guests, or play Monopoly for real money and give the winnings to charity. In fact, this concept is catching on and has replaced women’s poker games. One group of women is committed to raising $1 million through these dinner party Monopoly games,” she says. Tenenbaum, whose company offers a tantalizing menu of delicious fare, admits to being “the champion of takeout” on several occasions. “If a caterer is not necessary or in your budget and time is an issue, take advantage of some of Denver’s wonderful restaurants. The key here is to mix it up, getting salad from one place, meat from another, dessert from a third. Or make part of the dinner yourself. Or use one restaurant for the entire meal and host a series of dinner parties, each with food from a separate restaurant. This can be a very economical way to entertain, if you know how to order,” she says. Desserts are still a popular item at any dinner party, and it’s easy to get creative with them. “A fun thing to do in the summertime is a candy store. Get apothecary jars and fill them with candy, and give everyone cellophane bags that they can fill up with the candy. Guests love this, and it’s a lot of fun,” Tenenbaum says.
With the food handled, it’s time to talk about the ambience. “This can be such a fun part of the party-planning process,” Tenenbaum says. “For example, you can go to Crate and Barrel and buy big tins in bright yellow and hot pink and put your beer and wine in them. As for flowers, most women love to do these themselves, but if you don’t have time, bring your own containers to your favorite florist and let them make an arrangement. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that less is more. Put more emphasis on a great container, and you’ll have a great-looking centerpiece.” Venue also is a consideration, and while most people would not balk at the idea of attending a party in your home, it may be fun, budget allowing, to seek out something a bit different. “Look for venues that don’t normally rent out for parties. Everyone loves to go someplace unique, such as Men’s Warehouse. One venue that is great for a party is an art gallery, such as the ones on South Santa Fe. They’re less expensive, the spaces are gorgeous, and you don’t have to decorate!” Tenenbaum says. “This is a great way to host a more intimate party in a very chic environment.”
If themes are more your speed, the options are endless. Here, entertainment should not be confused with music, which, while perhaps providing a nice backdrop, can probably be handled more than adequately with an iPod. “Get creative here. People love games, and a scavenger hunt is a great way to keep people moving and mingling at the party. Or get arty,” Tenenbaum says. “Have all your guests bring something they’ve created, and donate it to a favorite charity. But keep one thing in mind,” she continues. “People hate costume parties. Casual is better and definitely more fun. Maybe throw a girly-girl party, featuring a real chi-chi sit-down dinner. Then pull out the raunchy movies and end with everyone having breakfast in bed! “If you’re into theater, consider showing a movie and inviting theater critics to come and discuss it with your guests. Or if fashion is your thing, throw a fashion party and have fashion divas come and host a segment for guests.” For Tenenbaum, it’s all about being creative and coming up with the unexpected surprise that will prove to be a wow factor. “At one party, we took a long glass tabletop and had two waiters carrying it through the crowd, serving hors d’ouevres. It’s fun, and it gets the guests talking and laughing,” she says.
Of course, such creativity can prove challenging, as even Tenenbaum admits: “We once did a pool party, and for the focal point the chef decorated a huge salmon with lettuce, tomatoes and more — it was beautiful. The host took a bite and asked the staff what it was. He was told, ‘You just ate the centerpiece!’ I’ve also been to elegant garden parties where the host forgot to turn off the sprinklers. But the party goes on, and it’s a lot of fun.” OK, we have the food, the flowers and the entertainment. So what’s missing? “The guest list, of course,” Tenenbaum says. “This is the first thing the hostess should think about. It’s all about who is going to entertain whom. Do you have to entertain your guests, or will they entertain each other? It’s important to have a common thread, but don’t overdo it. Don’t put together two doctors or two lawyers or two accountants. Forget that! And don’t worry that it won’t be perfect. People don’t go to a dinner party expecting to have the best time they’ve ever had. And some people just don’t like home parties. So it’s all about the people and inviting the ones who are going to make the evening fun.”
Denver Athletic Club
“I love to remind my staff that no matter how difficult or crazy things are, you have to be passionate about your work. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in order to succeed in this business, you have to be a little bit dysfunctional,” says Judie Davidson-Seidel, catering manager at the Denver Athletic Club. A true character in every sense of the word, Davidson-Seidel is energy in motion, a constant whirlwind of activity, who does not miss a trick when it comes to putting out the best possible product. “Hospitality is such a tough business,” she acknowledges. “The hours are long, the demands are great, and clearly, we’re not motivated by the money. It’s that end result that keeps us going, and that’s what it’s all about.” A veteran of the entertainment industry, Davidson-Seidel began working in this field by a fluke. In the 1980s, she took a job with a local real estate developer after she was abandoned by her first husband. “I was relatively new to Denver, and I was completely on my own. I met a lot of people and made a lot of contacts. Then I got a call from the general manager of Green Gables Country Club, and everything changed,” she recalls.
By the late 1990s, Davidson was learning the hospitality business from the inside out, trying her hand in several areas, including marketing, social director, food and beverage and management. Her efforts led to her becoming the region’s first woman president of the Club Management Association. “This industry was always an all-boys network, and I was determined to show I could succeed. I’ve always loved being around all men, and I’ve found they make great colleagues and are not at all intimidating. I think I’ve succeeded in this industry because I’ve chosen not to overanalyze what it takes. It’s unfortunate when women allow themselves to be victimized by their relationships, in business or on a social level, and we as women do this all too often. I set goals for myself, and I was determined to learn all about the elements of food and hospitality,” she says. So what makes for a great party? “It’s all about the food, the setting, the people and the music. Put them all together, and you’ll have people walking away from your party with a huge smile on their face. There is no magic formula. It just happens that when everything comes together, when you can take the personalities out of the work and everyone can work comfortably together, it’s a success,” Davidson-Seidel says. She cautions that when it comes to the guest list, the host or hostess should consider carefully what he or she is trying to accomplish. “Unfortunately, too many people believe they have to invite the whole world to an event. If you just cannot cut down the list, consider building tables within tables, such as the tennis group at one, the book club at another, the theatre group at a third. It’s difficult to integrate people at an event, so you as the hostess must be available to introduce everyone and briefly explain their history,” she suggests.
Another alternative to the large-scale party is to host a series of “vignettes,” smaller parties that include a few people from different places who can be brought together to mingle in a much more intimate setting. “Dinner parties are great, but people always worry that their homes are not appealing aesthetically. But think about it. How many times have you gone to a great party and remembered what you ate or what was wrong with the house? If you only do hors d’ouevres, make sure they’re great. More importantly, get fun people who don’t take themselves too seriously to come.” Being just a little bit creative will turn even the simplest dinner party into a fun evening. “Don’t forget to talk with friends when you’re planning a get-together. You’d be surprised by how creative your close friends can be and can make suggestions that will guarantee a good time.” If you do decide to work with a party planner, don’t be afraid to let her guide you through the process. “It’s up to the planner to instill the confidence in the clients and to bring up the comfort level so that they feel they are getting the best possible service,” Davidson-Seidel says. “My 21 years of experience is largely based on lessons learned from my mother. She was very old school and instilled in me that I’d rather do something right or don’t do it at all. So, if you’re going to throw a barbecue, make it the best barbecue possible. It’s better than trying to throw an elegant dinner party and only going halfway. It’s OK to have a party over the top, but make sure it’s over the top in every way, including the guests, the food, the music, the décor.” Even the most lavish of occasions can fall apart unless the hostess can rise to unexpected challenges. “I remember once I had done a beautiful outdoor wedding. While the ceremony was taking place, a tree that was being used for decoration fell right onto the wedding cake. Rather than panicking, I grabbed the chef, and he built up one side as much as possible. Then we turned the cake around to hide the damaged side and somehow got away with it,” she says.
“Another time, we had a chef who planned the entire menu with the hostess and held a tasting to make sure everything was up to par. Then he abruptly left, and a new chef had to come in with no background information at all and had to recreate the first chef’s work. Another time I was at a wedding and the officiator had booked the wrong date on his calendar. So we prolonged the hors d’ouevres for a very, very long time until we could find someone to marry the couple.” Unexpected catastrophes such as these could surely bring a weaker hostess, caterer or party planner to her knees. “Don’t let that happen. Rise to the occasion, do whatever it takes to pull it off, and chances are, your guests are going to remember a wonderful party,” Davidson-Seidel says. “It doesn’t matter at all what happens behind closed doors. What matters is that the guest never knows there is a problem, and the party should be seamless.”
Newberry Brothers Greenhouse and Florist
One of Denver’s best-known florists, Newberry Brothers Greenhouse and Florist, has served the metro area for nearly 40 years. Today, the company does a thriving party and entertainment business, under the watchful eye of owner Paula Newberry, who runs the popular business with her mother. Newberry Brothers opened in 1947, when Eldon Newberry and his two brothers decided to grow carnations in a specially equipped greenhouse. By 1969, heating bills had become astronomical, and the brothers were unable to compete with cheaper production overseas in South America. A decision was made to go in a different direction, and Newberry Brothers was well on its way to becoming one of Denver’s premier florists. Eventually, Paula Newberry’s uncles sold out to her father, yet her mother was hesitant to be in retail. “They started out small, selling potted plants, but there was not enough of this business to do on the wholesale level,” Newberry says. “Then one day in the 1970s, a woman walked into the store and asked my mom if she would do the flowers for a wedding. My mom had never done this before, and for $300 she literally gave her the moon!”
That first event was the launching pad for a wildly successful foray into providing top-notch floral décor for parties, weddings and special occasions. Today, many of Denver’s high-end party planners simply will not consider putting on an event without Newberry’s help. Growing up, Newberry became increasingly involved in the business and eventually transferred back to the University of Denver to help run it in 1984, when her father passed away. Over the decades, she has watched a dramatic shift in the way people approach an event, whether an intimate dinner party for eight or a lavish occasion. “Take, for example, the way people put on a bar mitzvah,” she says. “It used to be that we would put a pretty potted plant on the table and decorate it with ribbon. Now, each party must be imaginative and different, and the process requires a great deal more planning and creativity. Today, it takes a team to put on this type of event.”
This group-planning effort is a far cry from the early days, when she worked alongside her mother planning floral arrangements and creating centerpieces. “I remember when we first started doing wedding work when I was in college. I would start working on the arrangements on a Friday night and would never go to bed until Saturday when the wedding was over. If it took working straight through the night, that’s what I’d do.” Amazingly, Newberry’s 86-year-old-mother still plays an active role in the business that she helped develop so many years ago. “She still handles the payables, and she knows where every single dime goes,” Newberry says. “I don’t like overseeing the financial end of the business, and I don’t know what I would ever do if she wasn’t here.” Even Newberry’s son has become an integral part of the operation. “This is truly a family business,” she acknowledges. “From the day my son got his driver’s license, he’s had to do teardowns after every event. There have been so many times when he’d go out on a Friday night with friends, then would leave at 2 a.m. to finish up an event. He’d usually round up a couple of his friends to help.”
While her mother stays busy making sure the business remains healthy financially, Newberry focuses on keeping up with trends that crop up on a daily basis. “It’s not just about reading the latest magazines because you also must be constantly aware of everything going on around you,” she says. “On Sundays, I’m famous for walking into a furniture store, seeing an accessory that catches my eye, and buying 100 of them for use in some future centerpiece.” One of Newberry’s greatest strengths is her ability to work with every type of customer and work her magic on every type of event, regardless of budget or location. “Take the bride, for example. I begin with her wish list, what atmosphere she is trying to create, and I’ll work to fit that into her budget. I’m always on the lookout for something different and unexpected to be a part of the centerpiece. It doesn’t necessarily have to be flowers; it can be fruit or something else entirely. I want the guests to go away and say ‘I never would have thought of that,’” she says.
Some simple ideas for summer entertaining, which can be done tastefully yet economically, are to use hollowed-out watermelons as vases. Filled with Gerber daisies, these make a beautiful centerpiece that will also be a hot conversation topic. For an Italian-themed party, consider cutting the tops off bell peppers and placing bouquets inside. For a different twist, consider small glass jars lined with asparagus or lining up candles of varying sizes. “The key is,” Newberry explains, “to go through your things at home and incorporate them into your design, rather than going out and buying new items. You can fill up tin buckets with daisies or line a glass vase with lemon or lime slices. It looks beautiful and will draw attention.” For people who work, the idea of putting on a wonderful party without breaking the bank may seem a bit daunting. Not so, says Newberry, who is quick to acknowledge that when it comes to entertaining, there is no right or wrong, only what feels right. “You can go to your florist and request something creative that won’t cost a lot. And it always helps to be aware of your surroundings. The next time you’re in the grocery store, look at the different displays and see if something catches your eye that may fit into your dinner party. There is so much design that incorporates food now, and using food as part of your centerpiece, accented by flowers, is both fun and trendy. Cupcakes also make a great centerpiece, and there are shops that specialize in them,” she says.
Newberry acknowledges that in Denver, we are fortunate to have a “great group of event vendors” who are fun to work with and who also have fun putting on memorable events. “Between all of us, the sky is the limit. This business has changed, and we’re lucky to have so much creative talent to tap into in the community,” she says.
Vice president of business development,
Libby Ancona knows how to create a memorable event on a budget. Indeed, her background spent working for political candidates taught her well how to stretch a dollar and make every cent count. “I used to do a lot of volunteer work for campaigns and loved the challenge of being able to put on a great party with seemingly little effort and in a cost-conscious way,” she explains. “When it came to political parties, we had to be budget-minded, so I often ended up making a lot of the food.” “I had grown up entertaining because my father was a career Army man, and my parents had a lot of international people over for weekly dinner parties,” Ancona says. “I helped with everything from the prep work, to set-up and serving, and was even hired out to my parents’ friends to help them. My parents were such gracious hosts, and the minute guests walked in the door, they felt welcome and taken care of, able to mix and mingle with ease. That’s 50 percent of my job today,” she says. Ancona points to several items that can make for a great party, regardless of size or cost. First, she says, is to make sure the guest list includes an interesting mix of people. “When you invite the same people everyone knows, the party will be fun, but will it be great? Think about a common bond your guests might all share, such as being from the same part of the country, all corporate types, or perhaps all with a military connection,” she says. Another suggestion is to consider seating spouses apart from one another when doing the table. “I think sometimes people are more reserved when seated next to a best friend or spouse. It’s out of most people’s comfort zone, but in the end people usually end up having a great time,” she observes.
Make sure the party takes place in a comfortable environment, and create this ambience using candles, fresh bouquets from the garden or soft lighting. “What is important to remember is that the venue matters less than the ambience you create,” she says. “So if you have a large room or garden, arrange groupings or conversation areas where people can gather in more intimate settings.” Creating a beautiful atmosphere does not have to cost a pretty penny. Ancona suggests covering standard card tables with nice tablecloths and adding flowers arranged in unusual vases for effect. “Look around your house, and you’ll find so many elements that can be used. Baskets covered with pretty napkins can be very nice, as can bandanas or other materials.” Flowers can add great impact to the setting, and Ancona suggests buying a bunch of one type of flower, such as tulips, and adding a minimal amount of greenery. “Use cute glasses or little silver teacups as vases, or float them in pretty saucers. Be creative. Smaller arrangements look nice on a long vertical table that can be covered in a white cloth. Put a sunflower in each small vase for a very linear, clean look. More is not necessarily better, because one of something is often much more interesting,” she says. When it comes to the music, Ancona believes it should be more in the background: “The music should set the mood, so consider some type of instrumental that is not too loud. It’s nice to have, but should not take over the party.”
Ancona believes the best parties are the ones that require little work during the actual event. “Usually when there’s a party, the hostess is celebrating with friends. If she has been working for the last 24 hours putting together the party, it’s just no fun. Parties should be casual yet elegant, and the hosts should be able to mingle with their guests. You want your guests to think you just whipped up this party, and by making it look easy, the guests will not feel guilty. Spend minimal time in the kitchen, and always keep the bar far away from the kitchen,” she says. In the end, Ancona believes a great party is all about presentation. It doesn’t have to cost a small fortune, and it does not require hours and hours of preparation. “An appetizer of hummus in a beautiful bowl, arranged nicely and sprinkled with a garnish such as pine nuts, herbs from the garden or fresh flowers, is an extra little touch that makes a beautiful presentation,” she says. Today, fewer people expect a wide array of hard liquor at dinner parties, which means the hosts are able to put a little more thought into a top-notch beer and wine selection. To add a little zest, consider having a signature drink at your party, which can be handed to guests when they walk in. “Hand it right to them, and then show them the bar. Always stock the bar with water, beer and garnishes. But remember that simple is key, so you don’t have to overdo it,” Ancona says. One trick that Ancona learned is to walk around with a kitchen timer in her pocket. When the timer goes off, she can go into the kitchen to remove food from the oven, freeing her up to mingle with guests. “And never, ever, ever do dishes during a party. Hire a teenager to help with the cleanup and possibly even the prep and serving. This is definitely the best investment of the evening, and if necessary, they can also help babysit,” she says.
If catered affairs are more your style, check out the caterer and understand their services. “It’s important to consider what you want from your caterer, and to set your goals and expectations accordingly. There should be good communication, and you should know well in advance who will be coordinating your event. Make sure you specify where the bar will be located, what the décor will look like, what food will be served. You should be comfortable with your caterer, and you need to trust them to create a memorable event.” Ancona notes several trends that are taking a front seat at parties of all types. “We’re seeing a variety of nontraditional ethnic foods with bold flavors, such as Korean, African and Brazilian,” she notes. “Upscale comfort foods, such as lobster mac and cheese, mini tuna burgers and truffle-oil fries are very popular. Fusion is also very big now, representing a style of cooking that combines ingredients and techniques from different cultures, such as Asian tacos, Oriental bellini or Thai beef consommé. The trend is to serve smaller portions with big taste,” she says. Other popular menu items include vegetarian foods and ecofriendly menus that use local ingredients. “Serving pieces are fun as well,” she notes. “Putting foods in unusual vessels, such as sorbet in a shot glass, fries or salad in a bamboo cone, can be novel and unusual. Another idea is to serve tap water, flavored with cucumber, mint or orange. Serve it in big vessels filled with the tap water and filled with fresh fruit slices.”
Interactive stations also are popular, allowing guests to be involved in the final product, such as pad thai, chopped salad, stir fry or a potato bar. “The Food Network has really had an impact in terms of getting people more into food and food presentation. Our clients are much more educated in these areas and want that same level of sophistication,” she says. Even a traditional summer barbecue can be spiced up, given a little twist. “This does not necessarily mean you need to limit the food to burgers and hot dogs. Why not do a Mediterranean theme, throw some big colorful blankets on the tables and serve cold salads, and have lots of fresh flowers? But remember to use elements you already have, such as the birdbath in your yard that can be filled with lemonade bottles and fun straws for guests to select. Or do a nautical theme, with seashells and sand for decoration. Even if the food is not that great, it always tastes a lot better in a great ambience,” says Ancona. No time to cook? Buy a pre-cut watermelon, and arrange the chunks in a decorated display. For dessert, buy frozen ice cream bars and serve them in a champagne bucket filled with ice.
“I love entertaining at home, and I’ve learned that when it comes to making a dish, never pigeonhole yourself into a box. That way, if you have a recipe that calls for tomatoes, but the selection does not look good, you can quickly substitute another fresh ingredient and still have a wonderful dish,” she says.
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography KIT WILLIAMS