MAHONING VALLEY Businesses see growth in Communion parties

YOUNGSTOWN -- Karen DeVicchio wishes she had about 100 banquet rooms to rent.
"If I had 100 rooms, I could have booked 100 Communion parties," said the owner of Bobby D's restaurant and banquet center on East Midlothian Boulevard in Youngstown. "I had to turn so many away."
DeVicchio is not alone. Business owners around the Mahoning Valley say First Communion celebrations are getting bigger and more elaborate, and that's good news for companies that cater to party givers.
Tradition -- girls in white dresses and veils, boys in suits, sometimes even tuxedos -- seems to be stronger than ever for area Catholics celebrating the rite of passage with their 7- and 8-year-olds.
"I've been in business for 21 years and I've seen a lot of changes, but that's one thing that hasn't changed," said Rose Liguore, owner of The Children's Loft clothing store on Market Street, Boardman. She counts on Communion attire to boost her business every spring.
But while some parents still celebrate afterward with a small family gathering, many are opting for larger events at restaurants and banquet halls, sometimes with 100 or more guests.
Liz Wilson, banquet coordinator at Vernon's Cafe on Youngstown-Warren Road in Niles, said she's watched the number of catered Communion parties climb gradually since she joined the company six years ago.
The average party size at Vernon's this year is between 30 and 50 people, but Wilson said she's booked some with more than 100.
"I think a lot of mothers are working and they don't have the time for a home party," she said. "They'd rather have someone else do the work so they can relax and enjoy it."
DeVicchio agreed that parties are escalating in size and number. Bobby D's booked six Communion parties in its three banquet rooms last weekend and turned away many times that many, she said, and more are scheduled through mid-May.
"We've noticed that Communion parties have become as big as graduations used to be, and graduations are becoming like weddings," she said. "I'm not complaining at all. It's good for our business. But it's a phenomenon."
Heidi DeNiro started noticing the trend shortly after she relocated her Italian Baking Co. to Market Street three years ago, and she made up her mind to capture part of the business.
Italian Baking is best-known for its bread, but DeNiro wants to promote the bakery's other creations, so she began aggressively advertising her Communion cake designs.
The effort has paid off. She had orders for 20 Communion cakes last weekend, with more reserved for this weekend and next. Some parents have ordered cookie trays as well, she said.
DeNiro offers two Communion cake designs, one with the traditional cross and flowers, and the other unique to her shop, featuring a chalice, bright purple grapes and stalks of wheat.
She does special orders too. One proud mother ordered a tiered Communion cake this season -- an extravagant choice, DeNiro said, considering the price of a decorated tier cake can be as much as five times that of a sheet cake.
Poland Bake Shoppe on North Main Street has been making Communion cakes every spring since it opened 24 years ago, said owner Burt Butcher. What's changed is that people who once ordered quarter-sheet cakes are now buying full sheets or even two, enough to serve 100 to 150.
"Over the last four or five years we've noticed the parties are getting bigger, just like graduations," he said. "We've been having to cut off orders the week before, we're getting so many."
The Communion season starts in January at The Children's Loft, owner Liguore said, because that's when her inventory of dresses and accessories for the new season arrives. She's sold about 50 Communion ensembles for girls so far this year, including the matching shoes and veils trimmed in pearls and lace.
Prices have increased over the years, but Liguore said she avoids the top-of-the-line $500 and $600 dresses because they have limited appeal in the Valley market. Most of her dresses are in the $160 to $170 price range, she said, and a complete ensemble averages $250.
Communion celebrations are more popular in this region than in other parts of the country, Liguore said, so her clothing selection attracts shoppers from Akron, Cleveland and beyond.
Her selection also helps to attract new local customers to the store, she said.
Communion photos have always been a big business for Guzman Professional Photography in Poland. Owner Frank Guzman said he promotes the category almost as heavily as he advertises high school graduation pictures.
Guzman offers studio portrait sessions for parents who want to have photos of their children on display at their party. He also makes arrangements to set up his equipment at some churches on the day of the First Communion Mass and offers group and individual photos.
"I've had orders ranging from $124 to $2,500 for Communion photos. That's crazy, isn't it? But I'm not complaining," he said. "When I was growing up, Communion parties and graduations were in the garage. Now, they have bands, they're like little weddings."
Guzman said parents at every income level are spending freely for Communion photos and party expenses. "It's not just the elite," he said.
Maxmillan Pelleschi, who recently moved his Creative Photography by Maxmillan from Liberty to new, larger quarters in Hubbard, said he's been taking Communion photos in the studio and at the church for all of his 25 years in business.
He also offers studio sessions and group photos at some area churches.
"This is a big thing in this area. It's a tradition. Parents like to see their girls as little brides," Pelleschi said, then added with a grin: "They like to see their boys looking like little angels, too, and it's probably the last time they're going to see them that way."

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