On the Job: A teacher’s journey from the classroom to the picnic table
This article is part of WorkLife’s On the Job series, which features first-person accounts of how people are adapting to the changing realities of work and workplaces.
It’s one of those picture-perfect Spring days in Manhattan’s Central Park when the sky is cloudless, the humidity is low and New Yorkers flock to the park. Tania Pennaneach is putting the finishing touches on a picnic set-up, complete with cloth napkins, lush flower arrangements and a table that is just the right height from the ground for the picnic-goers to lounge on the cushions placed around it.
Pennaneach commissioned a similar, but smaller table from a carpenter friend two springs ago, when Covid was in its early days and outdoor gatherings were the only way friends and family could safely see each other. A business idea she thought was long “dormant” seemed more relevant than ever: Custom, elegantly designed picnics that could be set up anywhere the client preferred.
Pennaneach was nearing her 20th year as an early childhood educator in the suburbs north of Manhattan teaching three and four year-olds. It was a job she loved, but like so many, she struggled to engage the little ones over Zoom during the shutdown and then with the pandemic’s strict safety rules upon return to in-person school. So when it became clear that her side gig curating picnics had growth potential, she decided to see where it could go. And that is how Une Table by Tania was born.
You had a long career as a teacher before the pandemic, right?
I really thought that was my path in life. Teaching and watching the little ones grow. Before I left, I was at a Head Start School in White Plains, NY for three-and-four-year-olds. I loved it. It gave me flexibility to also take care of my own three kids and I had summers off. It was just perfect.
When the pandemic hit we had to teach over Zoom. It was really challenging to keep their attention even for five minutes. We had to be innovative. We’d do little scavenger hunts for them and read to them, of course, but I could keep them for maybe 10 minutes and then we’d start to lose all of them.
When we finally went back in September 2021, the policies changed for safety reasons. Three-and-four-year-olds, when they get hurt, they need nurturing. They need attention. We couldn’t touch the kids. It was hard. It was harder to go back than it was to be on Zoom. Parents couldn’t even come into the classroom, they had to stay outdoors and drop the kids off. This is their first experience in school so it was really hard. Typically, for the first couple months of school, I would invite the parents into the classroom, especially for the kids that were having a hard time with that separation and then we gradually transitioned them to that full separation.
The hardest part was getting the kids to stay six feet apart in the classroom. They don’t understand. Something as simple as circle time was so hard. I still loved it, but it was challenging.
How did your idea for Une Table by Tania start?
About five years before the pandemic, I set up a really nice picnic for my husband and I for our anniversary in Central Park with pillows and blankets. We got so many compliments. At the time, I wondered if there could be a picnic business but I never pursued it. Early in the pandemic I actually saw a Pinterest picture of a really elegant, beautiful picnic table set up in an Australian park and I was like this could be a reality for me.
We have a friend that’s a carpenter and I asked him to build a really low table. I figured the maximum would be for eight people. I was still teaching at that time, this was May 2020, and the first prototype table was ready in June.
I started an Instagram page and we had family picnics every single day for dinner so I could take pictures and have content to post. If any friends had birthdays or graduations, I made a picnic. I did a lot of free things that June so I could introduce the world to the concept. Whenever I set up in the park people walking by wanted to know about it and asked questions.
I paid for an ad on Instagram and I got my first client who wanted to do a picnic for Father’s Day with her husband and kids.
They wanted a classic picnic of blankets and pillows, which I made really elegant. I charged $180. I went crazy, running through the house saying, ‘Somebody wants to pay me to set up a picnic for them. I’m legit!’
After the picnic the client posted a picture of it on Instagram and a few of her friends reached out. Then it started. The crazy coincidence was that their son was in my classroom the next year in September 2021. I was like, ‘I know you guys, you’re my first client.’
When did you decide to make this your full-time job?
After that summer it just blew up. I went back to teaching but I was still getting calls in September and throughout the fall. It was hard to juggle it all. It was hard to concentrate on one thing. I would never know where the business could go if I didn’t give it my all. I resigned from teaching September 2021.
How is it going as a full-time business?
We’re doing about 10 picnics a week. That’s including weekdays but the weekends are the busiest. Our lowest price is $300 for a classic picnic for up to four people. We’re not licensed to provide food but we help clients source it. We work with other vendors that provide food and we make it so everything is arranged when the clients arrive.
We’re doing a lot of micro weddings. I have somebody coming from North Carolina to New York to elope in Central Park. It’s just going to be the two of them and the officiant. We’ve done a few very small scale weddings with 15 to 20 people. The most we’ve done for a micro wedding was 30 people and it was all blankets and pillows. We’re doing a lot of children’s parties in the park and bridal showers. A lot of them are in backyards or Airbnbs.
I just hired an assistant to take care of like the the direct messages and inquiries, the admin part of the business.
Does that mean you’re profitable?
I’m making way more than I did teaching.
Why are picnics resonating with people today?
I’m not an event planner, I don’t do big events. My events are intimate and give the opportunity for people to still celebrate. Since the pandemic, gatherings have become more intentional and intimate.