Party On (Budget)!

Some out-of-the-box ideas for your company holiday party.



With the recession still top of mind, there seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to the corporate holiday party. Companies are either scaling back and being more creative (think decorated cubicles, cocktails in the executive foyer, finger food over a sit-down dinner or parties at off hours, i.e., weekdays or weeknights), or they’re conducting “business as usual,” meaning there are still celebrations with free-flowing glasses of wine, sit-down meals, entertainment, and favors. That is, partaaaaaay.

Many local business owners, like Nicole Sheindlin, founder and executive director of Her Honor Mentoring, feel it’s important, especially in a down economy, to have some form of celebration and to recognize the efforts of their employees—as well as to extend a thank-you to clients and customers. Last year, her group had a party for 40-plus at Don Coqui, and plan to do the same again this year—if the price is right. “We have had our holiday party at Don Coqui for the past two years and the reviews are fabulous,” says the Larchmont resident. “Our group of mentees and mentors really bonded by cooking together and then eating the delicious creations.”

“Business is getting better—it was horrible last year,” says Thomas Lawlor, general manager of Stamford, Connecticut-based M Communications, which provides audio-visuals for Westchester and Fairfield meetings and parties, though he admits it’s still slow to recover to its former glory days, with more last-minute bookings, increased budget-minded requests, and party planners shopping around for more than one bid.

Many companies, not wanting to make that “money commitment” until they see how their year-end is shaping up, are waiting to book until well into mid-October and November, whereas, in the past, parties were booked as early as the summertime or at least early September. And Pelham-based chef and caterer Nisa Lee reports that negotiations these days are more commonplace than before. “Everyone wants to bargain,” she says.

So where are all the bashes this year? From an inviting wine store to an open, airy kitchen where the sounds of salsa music get your toes tapping, here is an assortment of` venues to consider for this year’s office party.

Chocolations
607 E Boston Rd, Mamaroneck
(914) 777-3600

A party in a chocolate factory? You bet. Chocolations, which previously had been in a small storefront on Mamaroneck Avenue, offers an opportunity for intimate parties in a chocolate-factory setting. The aroma alone is enough to put a smile on your face—and aren't smiles what the holidays are all about? Owner Maria Valente is all about making her new space one that is cozy and interactive, so she offers chocolate tastings as well as chocolate-making classes. The open kitchen makes for great culinary theater where Valente and her staff weave their “sweet” magic. Parties are personalized; if you want to get down and dirty with fudge and chocolate, you can, or you can opt to simply drink and eat. Valente has a host of caterers who can bring in food. Or you can bring the wine and she’ll supply the desserts for a chocolate-and-wine-pairing party. Talk about ending the year on a high with “just desserts.”
Cost: Varies depending on type of party, but generally starts at $10 per person. There's an additional charge for catering from an off-site provider.

Don Coqui
115 Cedar St, New Rochelle
(914) 637-3737

Nothing is more catalytic to team bonding than a day of interactive cooking lessons and wine tastings with your own private chef. At Don Coqui, the three open kitchens on the first floor of this industrial building turned mod Puerto Rican playground are available for rent and make for memorable family-style meals—as well as your own Iron Chef showdowns. Chef Stephanie Landis, in fact, was recently asked to provide a cooking class for Unilever employees, which used all of their ingredients including Wishbone dressing, Hellmann’s mayo, and Skippy peanut butter. “Nothing is conventional here,” Landis says. “We’re happy to do things in either a demonstrative or interactive way; the choice is fully customizable.” The Unilever party, she notes, was a real challenge. “But we made it happen.” A typical party, at which, she says “the wine and sangria flow,” runs three hours with a half-hour of hors d’oeuvres, one to one and a half hours of cooking, followed by a full sit-down dinner to enjoy the meal you’ve made. The dining room upstairs, with its gleeful spirit and sultry lounge, offers additional options for a more traditional private party.
Cost: Starts at $110 per person for food, alcohol, and a cooking class, though cost varies depending on options.

Grand Prix New York
333 N Bedford Rd, Mount Kisco
(914) 241-3131

“Exhilarating” and “fun” are the operative words at Grand Prix New York, the indoor racing facility where 65 percent of the business comprises private events. “We’re weatherproof,” says Nat Mundy, co-owner and co-founder of the three-track go-kart facility that accommodates all ages, and puts colleagues “wheel to wheel” against each other in a fast-paced environment. “You don’t have to be athletic,” he says. “It involves everyone and is pure fun.” Indeed, putting the racing jumpsuit and helmet on makes for the ideal ice-breaker and perfect group photo: you can’t help but feel like Evel Knievel getting ready to overtake your opponent. There are three go-kart courses that can be divided up and used as one, or three, along with a game room, pool tables, and nine conference rooms for a more private setting. For food and drink, there’s Fuel, the venue’s race-themed restaurant offering everything from sushi to pizza. This isn’t a high-end tablecloth kind of place but rather, the kind of low-key, sit-back-and-relax (and don’t worry if you spill a drink) eatery where “recharging” is on the menu.
FYI: Mundy says many local businesses have pushed parties to weekdays and weekday evenings as a way to cut costs. Corporations, too, are combining meetings on-site with the party immediately after.
Cost: There is a host of à la carte packages accommodating groups from six to 400. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 (just racing) to $300 (racing with a sit-down, plated meal and open bar) per person, depending on what you choose.

The Hudson River Museum
511 Warburton Ave, Yonkers
(914) 963-4550

The Hudson River Museum has just completed renovations to its lobby, gardens, and meeting space. What used to be small classrooms are now five full-service meeting rooms and what used to be an auditorium is now a gorgeous banquet hall with all the latest up-to-the-minute technologies, not to mention a glass wall that looks out to the river and lights beyond. The Hudson Room is the crown jewel of the museum (as is its exhibit space), with accommodations for up to 400 theatre-style or 240 for dinner. Here’s where the down economy works in your favor: According to Director of Community Development Richard Halevy, the museum is being much more aggressive about seeking out parties (and even weddings). It is also quite accommodating and negotiable, so if your guests want a private planetarium show or a walk through an exhibit, it can be arranged. “We have a set rental policy,” he says. “Now we just have to get the word out that we’re open and ready for business.”
Cost: Still working out exact costs as of press time. Contact Richard Halevy at (914) 963-4550, ext. 212, or via email at rhalevy@hrm.org or Elizabeth Sol at esol@hrm.org.

Life: The Place To Be
2 Lawrence St, Ardsley
(914) 591-4400

In less than two years, Life: The Place to Be has set itself up as the place for out-of-the-box parties. Deloitte Consulting, TD Bank, CVS, Community Savings Bank, and Montefiore Hospital are just some of the businesses that have booked events at Life, where your wish is basically their command. This huge, loft-like event space can be transformed into whatever suits your needs. Want rock climbing and more adventure-based activities like laser tag and bowling? No prob. Or do you prefer a more sedate setting with dinner and dancing? Life has an exclusive arrangement with Abigail Kirsch Catering, so that, too, can be arranged. In addition, the facility has its own menu, which is less expensive. Parties can be booked for as few as ten and as many as 1,000 people.
Cost: $32.50 per person and up

VINO 100
171 E Post Rd, White Plains
(914) 949-8466

Learn about wines from an expert—or simply sip and enjoy some liquid experimentation, conversation, and education with an intimate party at VINO 100. Mingle among the rows of wine bottles while owner Stu Levine talks Merlots vs. Monastrell or Chardonnay vs. Charbono. Levine takes the “whine” out of your office milieu. The store can accommodate up to 40 people.

Cost: Depends on options chosen. Typical in-store parties include all wine, glassware, and service and start at $20 per person. VINO 100 can also arrange for food and other entertainment as well. And, if you absolutely love spending your free time in the office (or other venue), Levine can provide off-site wine-tasting events, too.

Larchmont writer Jeanne Muchnick, author of Dinner for Busy Moms, admits she has a closet full of little black dresses so she can always be ready for a party. She is also not offended by last-minute invites should anyone want to have her over for holiday cocktails. Go to www.jeannemuchnick.com and start the conversation.