ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) has grown into much more than a delicious farm-to-table restaurant in the heart of Fort Greene and has, in recent years, become the top destination for thoughtful, intimate boutique weddings in New York City. I’m still in awe over this success, and wanted to share some of the philosophy behind it all.
I sat down with Lauren Berg, to pick her brain. She is our beloved event coordinator, and a large part of her duties includes ensuring that every wedding held at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb )will exceed expectations.
She started with us six years ago and since then has gradually taken charge of events because of her deep sense of care, empathy & hospitality—essential qualities when working with happy, but sometimes stressed, couples planning their big day. She has booked, designed, and orchestrated hundreds of weddings at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb.)
Here, she gives us a few pointers on how she makes it all work so well.
CMS: What would be your initial advice to a couple who is looking for a wedding venue in NYC?
First, make a list of your priorities with your partner in order to get organized. It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the options out there, especially in New York City, so having a set of core values will help to narrow your search field so you can find your perfect match. These can be super general to start, and you can rate them from highest to lowest: a Brooklyn venue with a garden, focus on local food, brunch vs. dinner, full open bar, etc.
Then, I’d say:
*Coming up with a rough headcount and general budget is important before setting out to view venues. You can always adjust a bit later, but it will keep you from wasting time, or getting excited over places that are, in the end, not the right fit for your budget.
*From there, start to scout places! This is what makes ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) so cool because you can be a “secret shopper”—come and have dinner at the restaurant to get a feel for the atmosphere, food, and service; and get a true and honest sense of who we are without having to reveal that you might potentially book a wedding!
*Stay open and flexible without compromising too much of your core set of priorities. For instance, if your priority is the food, perhaps you could be flexible on the format in which it is served if you love the venue. Maybe you could consider a floating, cocktail style dinner service instead of a formal sit-down.
*If you keep hitting a wall, then reassess your priorities to see what needs to be shifted.
*Be honest with the vendors about your budget: it will save time and energy on both ends!
CMS: What is the best way to make the most of a meeting with an event coordinator at a potential venue?
LB: There are five things:
1. Make sure that before attending a scheduled meeting, you and your partner have reviewed pricing and basic info so you can come prepared.
2. Try not to go alone. If your fiancé(e) cannot come, bring a friend or family member. It is always better to have someone to bounce impressions off of, someone who makes you feel comfortable and will help you stay grounded.
3. Have your list of questions ready, otherwise you will forget them! And be kind with yourself, remember that at this stage, there are no stupid questions, and if the event coordinator is good, they will fill in the general picture for you so that you leave with a good sense of how your wedding could look there.
4. If you like the location, ask for availability, and if a “soft hold” is possible (meaning penciling you in for a date on their calendar). This lets you hold the venue for a certain amount of time without having to submit a deposit. Calendars move super quickly, and what is available one day can be gone the next.
5. And if you really like the space, and have a soft hold on a date, don’t hesitate to ask for an estimate. I am often surprised about how seldom I am asked to create an estimate. I am happy to make one, because ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb )is all about transparency. Making expectations crystal clear on either side is one of the main goals for every event- this is one of our secrets to success. At ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) we are super straightforward in our proposals, all pricing is laid out clearly. But a lot of places have hidden fees, and getting an estimate will minimize surprises on your final bill.
CMS: After scouting a few places, how do you know when this is the right place?
LB: You will know, because you will feel comfortable in the space and the atmosphere, and with the people. You will begin to envision your wedding: where your dad will give his speech, where your best friend will be waiting with you upstairs taking deep breaths while your guests are arriving below, how your partner will look sitting next to you at dinner, where your friends will kick off the dance party. And if the price is right, and your priorities are a match, it will be a no-brainer. This feeling will only come if you trust the venue, and the manager or event coordinator. Over the next several months or year, you will build a deep, professional relationship with them in regards to a very personal day in your life!
I can also tell you, you should stay away from places that promise things, or overextend themselves with things they have never done before—like promising you that they can handle 150 people when their maximum capacity is usually 120. The last thing you want to do is take risks with your wedding—you want to make cool, rational decisions with calm, professional people.
CMS: Now onto the celebration itself: to have a wedding cake or not?
LB: The wedding cake has turned into more of an idea, or a point at which you can let your creativity and personalities take over. In short—yes, of course you must have a wedding cake, but does it have to be a cake? No way!
It is 2015 in Brooklyn—you have endless possibilities. With so many great local artisans, you could have doughnuts, pies, a traditional, three-tiered and piped cake; or a cupcake tower. I've seen a cake made to look like a brownstone, and even one shaped like the family dog. I've seen cake pops, candy bars, ice cream stations, and ornate, teeny-tiny individual wedding cakes made for each guest to have.
“The cake” is really a symbol of tradition, and to give it an unexpected, local twist is fantastic—and really what Brooklyn (and ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb!) ) is all about. Some of the staff's favorites so far came from Baked (always delicious- you can't go wrong!), Nine Cakes because of their delicate and elegant designs, and Dough of course (who would not like a doughnut for their wedding!).
CMS: What are your thoughts on flowers? How can you achieve the best balance?
LB: With flowers I would suggest keeping it simple. It's easy at ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb, )as the space is lovely, and the majesty of the brownstone calls for minimal decoration. But no matter where you book your wedding, simple is best because it can become quite a huge task (and expense). Find a florist (preferably one already familiar with the venue) who will help you in that direction.
I always love it when couples use or create multi-purpose decor. Like little potted plants or terrariums that are also the place cards, and by default become the guest's favor—so when each little pot is placed at each place setting- voila! the table is decorated. It is far more sustainable, and super creative. Stem, Sprout Home & Saffron are among our favorites!
CMS: What do you think makes ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) such a successful and sought-after wedding venue?
LB: I think it is a combination of many things, but is all comes down to two main truths:
First, we—and when I say we, I mean the entire staff—we never, ever forget that these are real-life moments, and not just another “private event.” We listen very carefully in order to deliver what people expect, always going above and beyond, and never falling short, because we never promise anything that we cannot deliver.
Second, we take a tremendous amount of pride in what we are doing. Staff training involves, of course, service techniques and knowledge of the product, but we also put an above-average level of emphasis on hospitality—so much so that a person's emotional intelligence is a big factor in our hiring process. We work hard on each event, and love to see that when we work hard, and work well together, there is nothing but success and happy couples to show for it! That is the reward.
CMS: What do you enjoy most about your job?
LB: I enjoy helping turn a phone call into a wedding, and the fact that I can have such a positive impact on people's lives in doing so. It is a wonderful feeling to know that so many people choose ICI (now called Maison May Dekalb ) for their wedding because of the trust they put in me, and therefore in the house. It is very humbling, and keeps me grounded.
I love the fact that I can help write a chapter in someone's life story. From the moment first contact is made by phone, until they gather up their gifts and guests at the end of the night—everything in between is a moment where we can shine for these people.
It is wonderful to be an agent in helping couples bring their people together around a table, be convivial, share a delicious ethical feast with their community and family.