Fifteen 4-year-olds in rosy satin princess dresses waving wands and wearing sparkling tiaras are a sweet sight, indeed.
But it was the three tables laden with candy that catapulted Hilary Whitaker's birthday party to OMG-it's-sugar-heaven status.
Next to dozens of glass vases filled with Gummi Bears, Swedish Fish, and saltwater taffy were licorice vines, Starbursts, M&Ms, rock candy necklaces, and three kinds of bubble gum. There were boxes of Nerds, Ring Pops, sheets of Candy Buttons, and rolls of Smarties. And let's not forget the lollipops: Hello Kitty marshmallow, giant swirls, and Blow Pops dotted the table.
"It's unbelievable," said Jennifer Ferrera, the mother of guest Isabella. "I mean, these Hello Kitty lollipops and these swirly pops? They really bring me back."
"Candy buffets" - over-the-top sugar shindigs that can cost a hostess between $500 and $2,000 - are the trendiest, prettiest, and most delicious additions to the kiddie party scene. Their success is pretty simple to explain: Kids love candy.
But the trend reflects more than just children's natural affection for confection. Parents are nostalgic for these treats of their youth. A sky-high pile of Skittles offers a simple pleasure with a twist. Fashion is finally embracing bright hues again. And such a fine display of colorful candy is enough to earn another notch in the belt of the Joneses.
"I wanted something that couldn't be replicated for her party," said hostess and mother Diane Barr. As she talked, Tiffany Gabbay, owner of South Jersey-based Couture Candy Buffets, rushed around Barr's kitchen in Aston, Delaware County, tying pink bows around vases. She is one of at least three candy buffet specialists in the area. "Last year we had a party with princesses and limousines," Barr said, "and we sat club box at the Wachovia Center. It was wonderful."
Candy buffets are a direct descendant of cookie tables (a tradition said to have been born in Pittsburgh), now a favorite at over-the-top celebrity weddings, said Anja Winikka, a senior editor at The Knot.com. One of the biggest celebrity-wedding candy buffets was at Khloe Kardashian's 2009 nuptials to L.A. Laker Lamar Odom.
Candy as a centerpiece grew in popularity because it can easily be incorporated into any theme, Winikka said. For example, said Luda Patlakh, owner of Sugar Rush in the Northeast, a bride who likes bling might use clear, green, and blue rock crystals to mimic diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. Candy can easily match the colors of the bridal party and it can be personalized, she said.
"Candy knows no boundaries," said Jon H. Prince, president and founder of Pittsburgh-based candy distributor candyfavorites.com, who has witnessed people spend up to $12,000 for candy buffets.
"Almost any occasion can have a candy buffet: weddings, bar mitzvahs, christenings. And it's so cross-generational."
A tight economy is returning people's attention to creature comforts. Wasn't life simpler when a Now and Later and Fun Dip made you happy? Who needed the latest Xbox when you could get a sour apple Blow Pop at the corner store for 25 cents?
Around three years ago, fashion - always reflecting the zeitgeist - began finding inspiration in candy. Designers such as Tracy Reese, Michelle Smith of Milly, and Nanette Lepore designed girly dresses in Life Savers hues, a sign of whimsy and hope for better times ahead.
And in the ultimate merging of fashion, candy, and pop culture, Dylan Lauren, the daughter of preppy designer Ralph Lauren, in 2008 opened a chain of specialty sweets boutiques called Dylan's Candy Bar. Lauren, who said she was inspired by Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, offers more than 7,000 kinds of candy, and her store regularly draws celebrities - and fashionistas - Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, Janet Jackson, and Madonna.
It's often a fashion education that prepares candy buffet builders for their work. Lisa Blackler of Barnegat, N.J., got her fashion merchandising degree at Brookdale Community College. Now her business assembles the edible centerpieces at soirees locally, in Los Angeles, and on Long Island.
Gabbay, 28, studied fashion merchandising at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology before getting married in 2008 with a wedding reception that featured a retro candy buffet with vases of Laffy Taffys, Mary Janes, and Twizzlers.
Gabbay decided that she could do a better job designing a buffet and started her business (CoutureCandyBuffets.com) that year. These days she does three to four events a week. Some are weddings, some Sweet Sixteens, but the majority are baby showers and birthday parties for children younger than 5.
"The truth is that parents just want to outdo each other," said Gabbay, who described her childhood as one filled with exorbitant birthday parties.
"I mean, I'm a parent, and when I throw a party for my daughter, I go all out. Parents just strive to do bigger and better things."
But bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to birthday parties - especially for the under-5 set, cautions Marsha Gerdes, a senior psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and early childhood development specialist.
Yes, it's true that children like sugar, but at over-the-top functions, parents actually eat more candy than the children, Gerdes said. After all, does a 6-year-old really have a special place in her heart for Red Vines?
"When a child is a tiny part of this large event with all this extravagance, they can get lost," Gerdes said.
"When neighbors do something, the definition of what's important in a party gets changed, and if a parent wants to do a simpler party, they sometimes feel guilty . . . even if they aren't doing what's best for the child."
When it came to Hilary's fete, Barr went all out. Besides offering a candy buffet, she had Giggledust Parties plan a tea party where crustless sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and sparkling cider were served by Philadelphia-based Irv's Catering.
Barr, an attorney, also asked that Couture Candy Buffets provide a make-your-own sundae station, a milk-and-cookie bar with three-inch-thick Rice Krispie Treats and brownie pops, and a cotton candy machine - all to the tune of $1,900. The party also featured a two-tiered vanilla cake with buttercream icing and a Barbie-sized Princess Tiana as the topper.
"I just want to make her feel like she's a true princess," Barr said of the party. "And treat her with royalty on her special day."
After the tea party, the 15 little guests - most of whom attend Baldwin School with Hilary - filled their to-go bags with candy. But, predictably - with 225 pounds of candy on hand - there was a lot left over. Barr, who owns a chain of day-care centers, took the rest to the children there.