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Sonoma County wedding sector roars back to life as couples scramble to plan

Gergana Karabelov faced unprecedented challenges running her Patisserie Angelica bakery in Sebastopol during the past year of the coronavirus pandemic. But as vaccinations ramp up and cases of COVID-19 decline, she has noticed one particular clientele coming back in droves: soon-to-be brides.

On May 22, Karabelov met with five different couples for wedding cake sampling and four of them booked. “It’s been crazy,” she said, with some days logging as much as 14 hours at work. On June 26, she will deliver cakes to seven different weddings — a feat that will surpass her record of five weddings in a single day.

“They have gone through so much,” Karabelov said of the couples. “I have had one couple they have had to book a date three times … It’s been really hard to keep up with the postponements.”

Karabelov’s tale is similar to others in the local wedding sector who had little work the past year but are now increasingly booked up as couples try to line up wedding dates. With nearly all restrictions on gatherings set to end June 15, the bridal rush includes both couples who postponed their nuptials during the pandemic along with those who recently have gotten engaged. They are even being joined by some who eloped or married quietly during the pandemic and having post-wedding elopement festivities, vendors say.

“It’s the equivalent of you are stuck in a traffic jam for a long time and then it finally breaks, and you get up to 35 or 45 mph,” said Marshall Bauer, president of Milestone Events Group of Santa Rosa, which before the pandemic planned about 200 weddings annually. His firm expects to coordinate 90 weddings this year through then end of the season in early November.

“We’re moving, but we are not going 65,” Bauer added.

The frenzied activity is welcome news to the local sector that Bauer estimates pumps as much as $200 million into the local economy annually. For perspective, the overall tourism impact in Sonoma County was $2.2 billion in 2019, by economic consulting firm Dean Runyan Associates.

The wedding industry contributes revenue to a wide array of businesses, ranging from entertainment venues to restaurants and chefs, event planners and furniture-rental companies. The sector provides employment to part-time servers who during the summer months can earn extra money to live in our high-cost region. It also includes florists, photographers, musicians and DJs among others who have carved careers for themselves.

That includes people such as Joe Hernandez of AMS Entertainment in Sebastopol, which provides DJ and musician services along with photo booths to wedding ceremonies. “We went from essentially doing nothing and now we're back out working events now. Essentially, we’ve been put in the game now after being on the bench for 13 months,” Hernandez said. Before the pandemic, AMS would do 400 events yearly.

Like other events businesses, Hernandez received help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program with almost $84,000 in refundable loans going to AMS to cover salaries and some rent and utilities, according to a database from the ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization that tracks the program’s funding. His business only lost one worker — who moved out of state — since the pandemic began. Nine people have returned.

Smaller micro-weddings

AMS has so far done smaller micro-weddings with limited guests and more social-distancing protocols. But with June 15 coming that is about to change. “Many of them have a very small gathering. There is just a ceremony and lunch or dinner. Dancing is very limited. But we are really excited coming up to potentially really expand it,” Hernandez said.

Bigger nuptial celebrations are already happening, such as the wedding of Sydnie Vanevenhoven to Anthony Szol as the two got married at Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena on May 1. As COVID-19 protocols changed through the spring, the couple decided to move their reception from the winery because it was limited in what it could provide for them. They instead went to the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa to better accommodate their wedding festivities. They moved the event two weeks before the wedding, which had 138 guests, many of whom came from across the country.

“I really don’t think it could happen without all the amazing vendors. Everybody was so eager to get back to work and make it excellent,” said Vanevenhoven, who lives in San Bernardino County. They booked their wedding a year in advance and were committed to sticking with the May 1 date.

Like other brides, she had wanted a wedding in the Sonoma and Napa wine region as “it’s so romantic” no matter the obstacles. She also was glad to do it this spring rather than a traditional summer wedding given the vendor crunch that is now occurring. “I’m thrilled because we got pretty much our first choices of everything,” Vanevenhoven said.

Booked for this year

That may not be the case for brides who are still attempting to line up vendors for weddings this year. For instance, Petaluma photographer Gina Petersen said she is basically booked for this year as many couples had to rebook from 2020 and have lined up their spots. “I am getting quite a few inquires for this year that I can’t even take on because I just don’t have any room,” said Petersen, who on some occasions this summer will work weddings on both Saturday and Sunday. “We are pretty slammed.”

She noted that some brides who want a first choice for a vendor need to reserve from 16 months to a year in advance to ensure that they will be able to secure such services. Petersen had 27 weddings booked last year and almost 20 of them were rescheduled, while the others decided to elope or just do a simple ceremony at the courthouse, she said. She charges $5,500 for her wedding services.

About half of her 2022 schedule is already booked given all the rescheduling and those who are newly engaged. “We’re getting pretty close on next year, which is great,” Petersen said of her calendar.

With the rush over wedding bookings, bridal parties are also encountering the main crunch affecting the overall North Bay hospitality sector: a lack of available workers. That has especially affected caterers looking for servers to work receptions, said Bauer.

The average 120-guest wedding will employ 55 workers through the whole process, with a large portion of them being part-time workers in roles of servers or bartenders, he said. The pressure on wedding planners and caterers is how to staff up such events after being on a long hiatus. “It’s very unusual to have almost be building from scratch,” Bauer said.

Lack of workers

The scarcity of workers is having an effect. “Caterers are reducing their capacity. If they had seven events during a weekend, they might now do two or three,” Bauer said. “Even though it’s just started kicking off, there also seems like there is labor poaching.”

The result is that some bridal parties could face some noticeable changes for their reception, he said. The contingency plans could include servers working more tables — such as focusing on 20 guests now as opposed to 15 — and meals may be served family style. Bartenders who would previously make mixed drinks at an open bar may instead serve premixed cocktails. “Therefore, instead of using three bartenders, you only need one or two,” Bauer said.

That scarcity can apply to some lodging options as well for those attempting to squeeze in a ceremony this summer. The Farmhouse Inn in Forestville is receiving many inquiries for booking rooms this summer, including from bridal parties, said Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of the luxury hotel.

“The problem is we don’t have any capacity the rest of the season. I think that’s the issue a lot of wedding groups are finding is that they’re wanting to have a wedding this July and can’t find anywhere to accommodate them,” Joe Bartolomei said in a statement.

Yet Karabelov said all the increased business is welcome after a year of pivoting to fill more takeout orders to keep her retail bakery running, a feat she has accomplished with help of almost $68,000 in PPP funding, according to the ProPublica database.

“Everyone in the wedding industry has been affected. It has shifted very hard,” she said. Karabelov noted that some of her customers have been insistent that they do their wedding cake and noted “you came highly recommended, and we don’t care how many hours it’s going to take you, but you are the baker we want.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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