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Weddings Make a Comeback

On-site weddings at reception venues are generally preferred these days. Here, Gloria and Ed Collins at Merighi’s Savoy Inn outdoor terrace.
by L.M. Jarvis
Photography by Angela Riley, BME Event Group
Jessica and Martin Carbone at The Grove at Centerton.

Tom Merighi Jr. remembers the days when he was a bit of a miracle worker.

A bride wanted a particular hard-to-find protein? Let me see what I can do. If a customer was having trouble hiring a certain kind of DJ or an unusual color for their napkins? Merighi was the guy: Poof! Problem solved.

“I think the biggest thing that [changed] is that I can’t be a miracle worker anymore,” said Merighi, the owner of Merighi’s Savoy Inn, 4940 E. Landis Ave., Vineland.

Merighi, whose banquet hall hosted dozens of weddings in the post-pandemic years of 2021 and 2022, was accustomed to making things happen, solving last-minute issues, smoothing out rocky situations.

“Now, everything’s a problem,” he said.

Just a few years ago, the magic he and his staff performed could make the whole process appear seamless, worry-free. Today, post Covid-19, it’s hard to hide the shortages, last-minute changes, and other complications.

“They shouldn’t have to know about those behind-the-scenes issues. Now, sometimes you have to call and say, we have to [make] changes,” he said.

Today’s engaged couples must be “a little more on the ball to make sure we have their planning in order, so we can do our job,” he said. That means accurate head counts—and firming up the menu in a timely fashion.

“Juggling, that’s what we do,” Merighi said.

He juggles shortages, employment situations and more. It’s an issue that has grown worse since the 2020 pandemic.

Merighi said he has been luckier than many employers. He has a loyal crew, but there have been situations in which it has been tough finding someone willing to work on a Saturday night.

“But that’s the business. It’s harder to be the miracle worker. It’s harder and harder,” he said.

For example, he recalled a period in which turkeys were in short supply. The couples had planned to have them available at a carving table, but that wasn’t going to happen. Merighi was forced to tell the couple they needed an alternative plan.

“We had to come up with a plan B. I had to go back to the couple and say, ‘Can we do pork?’ Can we do beef?’ ”

Often, these changes happen on the fly. “Sometimes, you don’t have a lot of time to plan,” he said.

Today’s couples are steering clear of many old traditions, too. Today, there are few rules.

“Whatever the bride and groom come up with,” he said. In his father’s era of hosting weddings, nearly all of them were held in a church or temple. Today, that has changed dramatically. Merighi said 80 to 90 percent of nuptials that he handles are held in the garden adjacent to the hall. “That’s a huge change,” he said.

Savoy Gardens, a lush, landscaped area, accommodates up to 400 people and has been in use for a decade now. In addition, couples are provided with a backup plan to move the ceremony inside in case of poor weather.

Favors are more of a thing of the past, too. Couples are aiming for something more meaningful, he said. “So sometimes, they’ll make a donation with the money they would have spent [on favors],” he said.

The garter toss is mostly a thing of the past, too, as is the bride’s bouquet toss. “No one wants to be uncomfortable anymore,” he said.

After-parties, which can be both formal or informal, tend to take place at Luna’s. The afterparty is a more recent trend that continues the reception at a different spot. In Merighi’s case, that would be the Key West-themed outdoor bar and grill with a laid-back atmosphere.

“I think almost every wedding is doing something afterward, whether it’s an organized planned event or it’s just happening on its own,” he said.


Likewise, at Eastlyn Golf Course & The Greenview Inn, planning your wedding should not be a chore. Ask Rob Buono. The owner and executive chef of Eastlyn Golf Course & The Greenview Inn, 4049 Italia Ave., Vineland knows a few things about them.

He sees couples making the same mistake, over and over: Stressing over the whole process and, as a result, missing out on one of the most important moments of their lives.

Stop. Breathe. Take it in.

“I always tell our couples: Enjoy the ride, make the best of it. Make sure you are getting exactly what you want,” he said.

The Buono family took over operation of Eastlyn in 2004 from the Galbiati family in Vineland. They average 75 to 100 weddings a year.

It’s no surprise that Covid was devastating to Eastlyn. “We didn’t have an event from March to December of that year,” Buono said. “Our ballroom sat empty for nine months. People were just afraid to have events. They didn’t want to expose their family members.”

He said they lost all their large corporate events, too, but the good news is that corporate gigs are returning and of course, so have weddings. However, some people are still leery of large gatherings.

Eastlyn’s facility has the advantage of offering guests an indoor-outdoor patio area, he said. “It’s completely covered,” so guests could enjoy the entire reception outdoors, but “under a roof. It definitely saved us.”

“We’re starting to see things come back,” said Buono, who also took control of scheduling events. “We were fortunate to make it through.”

Prices and supply issues also have been a great challenge to Buono. Specialty items such as wild game—a request at some weddings—might be difficult to acquire or way too expensive.

Buono, who is also the executive chef, has had to get creative, change his plans and approach the couples with the option of changing the menu.

“Red meat is very costly, so we have been trying to modify our menu to lessen some of the high-end costs. But people want their filets, they want their high-end meats,” he said.

Seafood prices can wildly fluctuate, too. For example, at one point it cost $18 to $20 per pound for jumbo lump blue crab meat. Then, for almost two years, that cost skyrocketed to $30 to $50 per can.

“You kind of took it off your menus,” he said.

Buono wants his couples to have the wedding of their dreams, but he must approach them and ask them to choose something else or absorb the cost.

“Some understand it, some don’t,” he said. “People want what they want.”

They have had events that are open to the public, such as a recent comedy show that was a big hit, but Buono said the business is focused on private events.

Buono says his restaurant cuisine is “Mediterranean with an American twist.” The restaurant is known for its fresh seafood, quality meat and farm-to-table produce. In fact, Buono said a family leases a farm on its land, providing the freshest Jersey produce.

Buono also points out Eastlyn can customize wedding menus for couples, adding in dishes that aren’t necessarily on the menu. For example, if the matriarch of the family is known for making a particular dish, Eastlyn can use the same recipe and replicate it for their guests. In that way, they help the guests carry on the family tradition.

“We customize [meals] for couples all the time,” he said. “We have a beautiful facility. Our job is to provide them with a good, safe facility and excellent service.”

Buono said Eastlyn has offered many culturally themed menus over the years.

“I’ve done Peking duck for a wedding. I try not to say the word, ‘no,’ ” he said.

Peak wedding season runs from April through June, then from September through the beginning of November.

Like many venues, the dates lost during the Covid years were moved to 2021 and 2022 and now the peak dates in 2023 are booking quickly.

Eastlyn’s location is off the beaten path, nestled between peaceful farmland and the Menantico Creek in East Vineland, he said. “It’s got that private feel,” he said.

Buono suggests couples start a year and a half away from their target date. He’s the guy to call if you have questions on putting together your big day. As the executive chef and owner, he’s more than happy to help.

“When you love what you do, it comes easy,” he said.

Maplewood III Marks 40 Years

Ken Esposito hasn’t had to change much from the days when his dad, Howard Esposito, ran the Maplewood III. The Vineland restaurant is celebrating its 40th year in the business next month, a milestone achievement in the hospitality business. Esposito and his staff achieve it by maintaining strict standards and serving up fine seafood, Italian fare, and other favorites.

It’s part of the reason why many engaged couples come to Esposito to plan their rehearsal dinners. Couples select three or four dishes, and the per-person price will include all nonalcoholic drinks, salad, main entrée, and dessert. The restaurant has a fully stocked bar and extensive wine list. Couples can bring in wine, but Maplewood charges a corking fee.

To reserve the restaurant’s private room, the Maplewood requires 20 or more guests for Thursday or Friday nights. For Saturday nights, the minimum is 35 people to reserve the spot.

“It’s a different world right now than it was before Covid,” said Esposito, who says he has experienced supply issues and rising food prices. “I don’t know the reasons for all the things we’ve had issues with.”

To cope, Esposito said he had to ensure all portions were the correct sizes and work up a special menu for customers looking for something different.

“I’ve been coming up with different specials,” using a variety of tasty alternatives such as shitake mushrooms, various types of sausage and vegetables to substitute for crab meat when it became too expensive.

“We found a lot of really good things that people like to help pacify those who used to come and get it topped with crabmeat,” he said.

Maplewood III restaurant is located at 200 N. Delsea Drive.

—L.M. Jarvis