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Do-it-yourself receptions: Say 'I do' to a frugal & personal wedding bash

AS A RULE, DIY is a concept that most brides don't want to apply to their wedding. But then again, rules are meant to be broken.

Cupcakes created for the Frismuth wedding by West Chester's Delightful Desserts & Culinary Creations. (James Heaney/Staff photographer)
Cupcakes created for the Frismuth wedding by West Chester's Delightful Desserts & Culinary Creations. (James Heaney/Staff photographer)Read more

AS A RULE, DIY is a concept that most brides don't want to apply to their wedding.

But then again, rules are meant to be broken.

For some couples planning to tie the knot, the notion of a personal, intimate wedding, an affair they control - and often pay for themselves - is a perfect fit. And what better place to have that wedding than at home, or at the home of a dear friend?

Not only are you saving the facility fee, which can run $5,000 and up at big-ticket venues like the National Constitution Center or New Jersey's Grounds for Sculpture, you're celebrating at a place that is meaningful to you.

After figuring out logistics like chair rentals and linens, the big question is, what about the food? Since the last thing a harried bride and groom want to be doing is poaching salmon on the eve of their nuptials, it makes sense to bring in a professional to coordinate the menu, or at least enlist the help of creative and willing friends to make the feast happen.

"Whether you're getting married in a hotel ballroom or your back yard, decide on what your focus is," advised Mark Kingsdorf, owner of Philly's Queen of Hearts Wedding Consultants. "If a 'great party' is the focus, your needs will be different than if 'amazing food and wine' is the focus. And fewer courses means more time to party."

For Heather and Chuck Frishmuth, planning their own outdoor wedding at their home in Charlestown, Chester County, was a must. The pair had eloped when they were 19 and never had a reception. For their 10th anniversary last July Fourth, they threw a backyard bash for 100 people.

"We pretty much did everything on our own - except for the food," said Heather Frishmuth. For that, the pair consulted caterer Merrill Simon-Johnston, owner of West Chester's Delightful Desserts & Culinary Creations, who just happened to live in the neighborhood.

While Frishmuth enlisted friends to arrange flowers, stitch exotic tablecloths, move furniture outside to create a sultry lounge vibe and even make the wedding cake, she looked to Simon-Johnston to coordinate the food.

"We didn't want the party to kill our bank," said Heather Frishmuth, a sales rep for fair trade chocolate company Theo Chocolate. A sloping yard made a sit-down dinner a challenge, so they opted for high cocktail tables and a dessert-only reception.

"I had a vision and Merrill helped set everything in motion," she said. From miniature cupcakes to signature sangrias and heart-shaped brownies, the evening was a sweet success. As for the budget, the couple wound up in the black, spending less than $20 per person for everything.

Although she always advises couples to have a contingency plan in case of rain, outdoor DIY wedding parties are more popular than ever, said Simon-Johnston.

"They key to doing an outdoor wedding yourself is to select as many kinds of food that can be prepared in advance as possible," said Simon-Johnston, who has catered hundreds of weddings in the 25 years she's been in business.

Dishes like oven-roasted salmon, oven-fried chicken, roasted vegetables and orzo pilaf are ideal candidates for the cook-it-yourselfer. Another tasty idea in lieu of pricey hors d'ouvres like crab cakes and baby lamb chops is setting up a bruschetta bar where guests build their own tasty morsels with toppings of herb-roasted tomatoes, wild mushrooms and artichokes with parmesan on rounds of crusty toasted bread.

For another July Fourth outdoor wedding she's catering - this one on the grounds of Faunbrook Bed & Breakfast in West Chester - Simon-Johnston worked with Sarah Horn and her fiance James Croft to put together a wedding feast that suited their love of food. Croft's Mexican heritage also came into play, with margaritas substituting for champagne during the wedding toast.

"Initially we thought about having a patriotic theme to our colors and food, but that's not really the way we eat," said Horn, of Wilmington. Because the couple loves to dine out, they wanted to feature foods they love.

"We went with a pasta station to feed the crowd, but added shrimp and scallops to make it special," she said. A station with dumplings and spring rolls, a spinach-and-goat-cheese salad with berries, plus microbrewed beer and wine were other choices the two made.

The couple also went with a nontraditional cake of dense chocolate mousse, along with after-dinner pours of limoncello, another personal favorite. Said Horn, "For us, food is important, and this menu combines all of our favorites."

Their budget? Under $50 per person, though that didn't include the facility fee.

While her normal costs start around $85 a person for food, not including labor and rentals, in light of the current economy, Simon-Johnston has decided to offer a "stimulus package" for $55 a person, including everything but alcohol.

Sans butlered hors d'ouvres, the buffet menu includes dishes like oven-roasted salmon with a fennel crumb crust and herb sauce and orzo pilaf, with a pound cake wedding cake iced with French butter cream for dessert.

"We're being pretty flexible these days," she said. "Sometimes I'll just make the main course and couples do the rest. I'll work with people. More people are scrimping some. And even people with bigger budgets are looking for value."

The key is to offer the unexpected, whether it's a backyard oasis with a sexy Moroccan theme, or a brunch menu served in the evening, said Simon-Johnston. "It's your day. Do it your way." *