When Marine Corps veteran and spouse Liz Hensel moved from Japan back to the United States, she experienced what most military spouses do: a highly competitive job market. Hensel settled in the Quantico, Virginia, area, just south of Washington, D.C., and while it's a good market for jobs, many qualified people are competing for them.
Hensel was frustrated and started brainstorming for a way she could create a business that would move with her.
"Every PCS was the same thing," Hensel said, "A new school for the kids, a new job, a new groomer for the dog."
It was actually on a walk with her dog when the idea came to her. She reached out to her best friend from high school, Samantha Solis, and together, they created Picnics by the Lake, LLC, based in Cleveland.
Hensel was born in Peru, moved to New York City and came to consider Cleveland her hometown after graduating from high school there. She enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and deployed to Afghanistan. Now Hensel balances her luxury picnic events from six hours away while raising her two girls, supporting her husband and spending time with her dog.
Maintaining her connection to Cleveland was important to Hensel, because she wants to continue to support and be a part of the community, no matter where she is living.
"I go to Cleveland every other weekend and help Samantha with the boots on the ground," she said. "I work the logistical side of things the other time."
While Hensel handles logistics, Solis is the creative side of the operation. Their goal is to share the Cleveland experience with tourists and residents by combining delicious food with the local area. They make sure that everything in the picnic basket is sourced from a local business so they contribute to the local economy.
Picnics By The Lake offers luxury picnics without any of the work. Packages include setting up and tearing down a picnic at a location you choose. Everything you need is provided, including blankets, dishes, decor, water, candles and lanterns, and packages cost from $125 to $140. Picnics last for two hours and accommodate two to four guests; longer hours and additional guests are available for a fee.
By working with local vendors, additional food items -- such as a doughnut wall and charcuterie board -- are available, as are painting supplies.
Hensel said that opening during the pandemic was a challenge, but with the locations available outside and packages for a small number of guests, it was easier to work around.
“We planned based on COVID being around for a while,’’ said Hensel, who took a class on contact tracing from Johns Hopkins University. “Our sanitation procedures won’t change. We’re moms and used to wiping everything down anyway.’’
How to Run a Business with a Friend
Solis and Hensel are not the first friends to go into business together. There are several companies who were founded on a similar interest and friendship, including Instant Teams and WISE Advise + Assist -- companies that help match remote workers with employment opportunities. They've also learned to rely on communication to ensure their working relationship and friendship survive.
"We make sure we take breaks so we don't get burned out," Hensel said. "We block off one weekend of each month completely, shut off our phones and enjoy the time with our family."
Hensel said those weekends allow them to recharge. And after almost 20 years of friendship, they know each other well enough to communicate effectively.
"We have tough skin; we don't hurt each other's feelings,’’ Hensel said. “Knowing your friend and remembering that friendship trumps anything helps us work well together."
Combining Strengths Leads to Growth
Hensel credits Solis with the creative genius that has helped their business grow rapidly. They're growing faster than they anticipated, booking one to three picnics a day for each weekend in addition to private events and special occasions.
They recently put together a basket for a couple celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary. The luxury picnic included a view of the Cleveland skyline, and they worked with a local cellist who played at their wedding.
Hensel said it's important to focus on quality over quantity, because you never know who is watching. The Cleveland Tourism Board contacted Picnics by the Lakes and asked it to showcase picnics when the NFL Draft came to the city in the spring of 2021.
"It really put our business on the map," she said.
As the business grows, Hensel and Solis will have to add staff. Hensel can't make the six-hour drive to Cleveland every weekend to help Solis with the workload when their orders increase.
From meeting in high school to launching a successful business while being geographically separated, friendship is at the heart of this relationship -- and it shows.
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