I didn’t do much baking over Thanksgiving – I ended up being a little busy with work – so in lieu of fresh baking projects, I thought I’d give a little more detail about the surprise party we threw for my Dad earlier this month. My mom, older sister Nikki, and I sent about a trillion e-mails back and forth to organize the whole thing, all while keeping everything under the radar. And we enlisted help from dozens of friends and family members – including Betsy – for prep, food, set-up, and clean-up.
First up: invitations. We invited all our extended family and some old long-lost friends of his and my mom. Work was another issue — I did some digging on my dad’s LinkedIn account, found a name I recognized as a co-worker, and contacted her. I asked her to take charge of inviting his work buddies since I don’t know them, and voila — problem solved. Mom found the most adorable old photo of Dad as a kid, and Nikki created an invitation on Shutterfly.
Next we worried about decorations. Mom booked the Page-Walker House in downtown Cary. It was a great venue — we got the 3rd floor to ourselves, which consisted of a big, open room, a small prep room, and a bathroom. The party room held about 40 people comfortably, which was perfect for us. Mom wanted light blue (my dad went to UNC and is a Tar Heel born and bred) and I wanted fall colors, so we went with light blue, burnt orange, and chocolate brown. It made a great combination. Mom rented a few tall cocktail tables, which Nikki topped with plain white tablecloths tied at the bottom with alternating blue, orange, and brown wide ribbon. We set each table with these awesome $3 candle lanterns we found at Ikea and a few orangey-red fake fall leaves. And we floated a few blue, orange, and brown helium-filled balloons randomly around the room.
Nikki also made great candles for the windows by decorating plain glass votives with an orangey-red fake fall leaf and wrapping it in twine, though her 3-year-old spent all night blowing them out.
The only other decorations were a couple fall flower bouquets (gerber daisies and roses) arranged in short, square vases and nestled among the food platters.
I also made a gift table to collect gifts and host a book for guests to sign. An old friend just happened to give him a corkboard decorated with pictures and mementos from Dad’s youth, so added to the table at the last minute, it made a great backdrop. The guest book, a sign, a couple of the extra leaf votives, and a few bowls of personalized M&Ms (light blue and orange, some with balloons printed on them and some that said “Happy 50th!”) were all that was needed to decorate the table since the gifts really filled it up. And after the party, I scanned images of people’s notes in the guest book and combined them with pictures in the party to make a hardcover book on Shutterfly – a great memento to give to my dad, without the time-suck of making a scrapbook.
So now for the best part: the menu! The biggest concern in planning the menu was the fact that we didn’t have a kitchen. The prep room had a sink and a table, and that was it. So we planned mostly foods that didn’t need to be cooked on-the-spot or kept hot. We did bring in a toaster oven just in case something needed to be heated up, and Mom rented 2 of those server trays with the heat things under them – I can’t remember what they’re called.
- Chilled shrimp with cocktail sauce
- Party meatballs
- Stuffed mushrooms
- Mom’s spinach dip and chips
- Cheese and crackers
- Mini Party Quiches
- Chick-fil-A nugget tray
- Sausage balls
- Deli spirals
Yum! The only issue was that we forgot to light the heat sources under the serving trays, so the mushrooms were not quite as hot as would have been preferred, but everything was still delicious. Note: Those things need to be lit like an hour in advance. Whoops!
For drinks, Mom got 2 huge galvanized tubs and filled one with soda and water and the other with beer. Nikki had also picked up a few bottles of 3-buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s, so with soda, beer, and wine, everyone was happy. Also, a super cute idea: before the party, Mom and Nikki set our family visitors to work decorating plain wine glasses with scrapbooking stickers and rub-ons, so each glass was festive and personalized.
And of course — dessert! We ordered cupcakes from The Cupcake Bar, a company that makes and delivers gourmet cupcakes inspired by cocktails and drinks. Nikki borrowed a friend’s cupcake tower and we had a beautiful display of apple cider, pina colada, and margarita cupcakes. I also baked a Blueberry Cobbler, since fruit desserts are my dad’s favorite.
And once I dragged our old stereo system into the venue and hooked my iPod up to it, there you go — a complete surprise 50th birthday party. The party was beautiful, the food was delicious, and the people were fun. We all had a great time. I had to remind a few people that meeting them when I was 5 years old means I don’t know them and they should tell me who they are before they hug me and ask how my life is, but even that was rather pleasant.
Oh, and the surprise… well, it was half a surprise. Dad expected something was up – there were suddenly tons of relatives in town, after all – but he didn’t know what. He thought we would just have dinner at the house or something. Mom told him that’s exactly what was happening, and told him he needed to get out of the house for a little while to let them set up dinner and “pretend to go along with the surprise.” So she suggested they visit a wine tasting at the Page-Walker House together for an hour or so, then head back home for the party. He was a little surprised when the party was there instead of a wine tasting, and even more surprised to see his work buddies and some long-lost friends waiting for him.
How Sue Sees It:
I don’t think I would change anything about this party. It was a lot of fun, and it mostly went off without a hitch. Even the small things – one food item didn’t cook quite correctly and the burners weren’t lit on time — just didn’t really matter much. A few tips, if you’re throwing a party:
- Always prioritize on the food. That’s what people care about. And, it’s always better to have too much than too little.
- If you can’t find everyone’s mailing address, don’t worry about contacting a few people via phone or e-mail. If you really want to, you can always offer to send them an official invitation in the mail after contacting them.
- Make sure you have enough help. We were not stressed out at all with set-up because we had tons of helpers, including young sisters and cousins to help out with arranging glasses, running for ice, and taking out trash.
- If you have to, triage. Betsy and I were originally planning on making the Mini Party Quiches AND cheese straws. When we realized the quiches would take way longer than expected, we just went with it and axed the cheese straws — we had enough food anyway.
- Happy party planning!