Gilroy’s 27th Annual Garlic Fest a success

Near-record crowds sent revenues and spirits soaring at Gilroy’s
27th Garlic Festival
– apparently nobody got the memo that this was supposed to be a
rough year.
Gilroy – Near-record crowds sent revenues and spirits soaring at Gilroy’s 27th Garlic Festival – apparently nobody got the memo that this was supposed to be a rough year.

A whooping audience of association directors, advisory and committee chairs greeted some of the first attendance numbers announced by Garlic Festival Association President Jennifer Speno after the gates closed Sunday night. The grand attendance total for the weekend: 129,644.

“There is nothing better than to lead an organization like the Gilroy Garlic Festival,” she said. “The year was so successful, not because of me, but it’s because of these guys here.”

Among the obstacles stacked up against the festival this year were the Grand Prix auto race held in San Jose and the recent sudden cancer death of Richard “Dick” Nicholls, the association’s executive director for nearly 20 years, nicknamed “Garlic #1.” Despite the setbacks, Speno said Nicholls’ legacy helped carry the festival through a “supreme” weekend.

“It’s because of his leadership that we were able to pull this off and have it be such a success,” Speno said.

Josie Gabriel of Mountain View said she’s been enjoying the festival since she first came five years ago. The 59-year-old brought her husband and brother Sunday morning and made her first stop at Gourmet Alley to pick up a combination plate.

“I come for the food and I love to buy the T-shirts,” Gabriel said. “I buy them for my sons in Hawaii. And we look around to see if we can buy some Christmas gifts.”

She came prepared and sat on a small woven mat, but marveled at the abundance of shade. Her brother, Inosencio Bautista, 54, said he was a Garlic Festival convert.

“I guess I never went before because I always thought it was going to be super crowded,” he said. “But actually coming here, it’s very well organized. It’s very quick. You don’t stand in line waiting.”

The attendance break-down for Saturday and Friday showed numbers that were close to the record set in 2003, the festival’s 25th anniversary. On Saturday, 59,647 people attended, while 26,661 came out on Friday. Sunday’s total, 43,336, was 200 more than last year despite the 96-degree heat.

“I think it’s truly because we have something to offer to every member of the family,” Speno said of the turn-out.

An admission price increase of $2, along with healthy sales of retail products and Gourmet Alley favorites, helped boost the festival’s net income to $1,650,948, or about $226,408 more than last year – before all the bills are paid.

“There’s no doubt it was a great year,” said Joann Kessler, assistant executive director of the Garlic Festival Association. “The board and the directors and the committees all did what they needed to do. And it was flawless.”

Three generations of women from one family, Sandy Contrino, 58, Andrea Maki, 37, Victoria Maki, 11 months, enjoyed the festival Sunday morning. They were from San Jose and had tickets to the Grand Prix, but didn’t go.

“We had too much going on this weekend,” Andrea Maki said.

While browsing at popular vendor Rosies Posies parasol stand Sunday morning, Kathleen and Lou Caiazzo, of San Antonio, Texas, said they saw a sign for the festival on their way to Hearst Castle Saturday. On the way back, they booked a room at the Hilton and spent the night in Gilroy so they could attend Sunday morning.

“We purposely spent the night to do this,” said Lou Caiazzo, who had seen the 2004 Cook-Off on the Food Network. “Now we can say we’ve done this.”

So large were the crowds of people trying to get into the park that festival organizers had to improvise. Information booths were converted into ticket booths. Volunteers started recycling tickets that had already been purchased and transferring them to gates where long lines were waiting to enter. The line at gate two, at the west side of the park on Miller Avenue, wound so far down the road that the end couldn’t be seen. Instead of serving water to people waiting for departing shuttle buses like they normally do, volunteers instead served those waiting to get into the park.

All those people put a strain on some of the supplies at food and retail booths. Gourmet Alley survived until the end of the day Sunday, when the garlic sausage sandwich sold out at 6:45pm, said Greg Bozzo, alley co-chair.

“We sold more sausage in Gourmet Alley than we ever have,” he said.

No other Gourmet Alley food items sold out, but on Saturday and Sunday volunteers were running to local stores to stock up on supplies, Bozzo said.

Garlic ice cream, one of the most popular foods at the festival was gone at 1:15pm Sunday. Con Agra Foods offers samples of the pungent treat but was unable to keep up with demand, said Rickii Zuniga, the longtime chair for the ice cream booth and Con Agra lab technician for 31 years.

“We are disappointing a lot of people,” she said, apologizing. A small group of people booed outside the tent upon seeing the “closed” signs.

The booth gave out between 160,000 and 200,000 cones on Friday and Saturday, Zuniga estimated. Her usual order of 75 cases was down to only 13 cases of 9 half-gallons of low-fat ice milk for Sunday, which she knew was about half what she needed, at best. She was unable to make more because her supplier could not be reached, she said.

On the other side of the park, at the T&J Moreno booth, folks lined up instead to pay about $4 for a larger serving of ice cream that mixed garlic with a variety of flavors.

Of those who did get to try a free sample were Kelly and John Bryson of Los Angeles, who were attending the festival for the second time.

“The first few bites, you don’t really notice it,” Kelly said. “You really taste the garlic in the end.”

One couple that make a habit of traveling thousands of miles to experience the festival gave the organization something to remember them by Saturday. Gerd and Ute Richter, of Bremen, Germany, stood on the cooking demonstration stage at Gourmet Alley and presented chefs Sam Bozzo and Gene Sakahara – better known as comedic cooking duo SakaBozzo – with a book all about their hometown.

Gerd said this was their sixth trip to Gilroy for the festival since 1997.

“We love garlic,” he said. “My wife buys all the garlic cookbooks.”

The demonstration stage, new this year, rarely had an empty seat throughout the weekend. Greg Bozzo said the demonstrations and new advertisements for Gourmet Alley dishes posted in parking lots and entrances helped boost food sales to $63,319 over last year.

Garlic Mercantile also “did very well,” boosted by sales of Herbie bobbleheads and items featuring the winning poster designs, said Retail Chair Patty Sebald. Scores of people lined up in a Herbie-only line both Friday and Saturday morning, and the 3,000 collectible dolls sold out by noon Saturday.

“They loved him, they thought he was very cute,” Sebald said.

Tim Dronek, 15, and Josh Guido, 14, wandered the kid’s area Sunday, trading their duties as Herbie, the festival’s mascot in 90-plus degree weather.

“It’s really, really hot,” said Dronek, a San Martin resident and Boy Scout who was taking his turn at the costume’s heavy garlic-shaped head and furry gloves. “(The kids) want to take your picture and give you high fives or they run away.”

A first-time festival-goer from San Jose found herself coming for the food – more specifically, out of sympathy for her sister’s pregnancy cravings – and stayed for the entertainment. Her favorite, Jeanine Pham said, was “Finding Stella,” a San Francisco-area band that rocked the crowd at the amphitheater stage Saturday morning.

Those who live on a route to the festival saw the rising temperatures and distant parking as a quick way to make a buck. Kiersten Raltson spent Saturday in her driveway, selling cold water and soda to visitors going to and from the festival. Temperatures that day reached 85 degrees. Ralston, 10, plans to use the money she made to go to science camp.

“I listen to music and my dad set up a TV in his garage, so I have some entertainment,” she said.

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