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For area businesses, stocking and planning for high school graduation can rival Christmastime

WILLMAR -- For some area businesses, the high school graduation season can be as busy as Christmastime, maybe even busier.

At The Paper Place in Willmar, owner Deb Lenz has arranged napkins, plates, confetti, balloons and table covers in a rainbow of colors. Most are printed with "2011."

The bakery at Cash Wise Foods is geared up to decorate hundreds of cakes while the deli prepares a variety of foods made to order.

Along with party decorations and food, families sometimes rent tents, tables and chairs, and all kinds of other equipment for graduation parties.

Lenz said graduation parties are usually held in a window of four to six weeks in May and June, and her business starts to pick up in mid-April.

"It's our biggest time," she said.

Planning for graduation has become a bit more difficult in recent years, Lenz said. She has owned the party supply store for 17 years.

"Some kids are real loyal to their colors," she said, but other abandon school colors for those they like. That can mean hunting- or racing-themed parties and pastel or neon color schemes.

"It's actually made our job harder," she said. In the past, she was pretty safe to stock up on the school colors from around the area, with an emphasis on Willmar's red and white. Now, she needs more variety.

Lenz said she's talked to people who are having a luau or a fiesta or western theme.

"Everyone's trying to do something different," she said."People will say, 'We're not doing a traditional graduation,'" Lenz said. "I say, 'You know what, I'm not sure there's a traditional grraduation anymore."

Food has moved beyond the standard fare of meat on buns with salads and cake, although that is still a popular choice.

At Cash Wise's Deli, manager Curt Stierler said his graduation business is a roughly 50-50 split between traditional sandwiches and salad and special orders.

Some things he's been asked to prepare include a taco bar, ingredients for walking tacos or a sloppy joes lunch. Fruit kebabs, veggie or fruit pizzas and ice cream sundae bars are also on the list.

"Nothing really seems unusual to me," he said. "I guess the fun part is that everything's just a little different for each customer."

Many people want to make sure their party is different from the others their guests might be attending in the same day, he said.

A few years ago, a customer asked him to find a cotton candy machine for a party, he said. He rented it from another business. "As long as it's available somewhere, we can get it."

In the bakery in Cash Wise, Nancy Anderson said this is the busiest time of the year.

It's not unsual to decorate 300 cakes for a graduation season weekend, she said. Anderson has been decorating cakes for more than 20 years.

Stierler said he's found that people did not scrimp on celebrations like graduation parties even during the worst of the recession. They will spend money on "thing that they take personal," he said. They want to make sure it's done right, especially for family."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340