Fairgrounds hosts drive-thru food fest

Event draws hundreds for classic treats

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A Butler's Amusements employee dumps kettle corn into a large pot during the Fair Food Fest drive-thru event at the San Benito County Fairgrounds in Tres Pinos on July 19. (Juan Reyes)

San Benito County Fair officials took a chance at something new this past weekend by opening its gates for the inaugural Fair Food Festival. 

The menu was short but it was more than enough to draw hundreds of people to the fairgrounds at Bolado Park.

Brittany Martinez, who owns a food truck that specializes in fried foods, said the weekend event was a success. She said it was a huge help for them especially since they had to put their business on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s been a great turnout and we’re so thankful,” she said. 

It was the second event of the year for Martinez and her family, which normally travels to various venue sites for county and state fairs throughout the year. 

The drive-thru event kicked off July 17 and patrons waited in line up to an hour in their vehicles for fair food classics such as corn dogs, funnel cakes, churros, kettle corn and lemonade. The wait was even longer on Saturday as some waited as long as two hours.  

“It’s been really great, the people have been nice and they’ve been really patient,” Martinez said. “We try to go down the line and help the customers.”

Martinez mentioned that they were supposed to have a corn dog stand but the vendor backed out at the last minute. She said she took on that responsibility and didn’t mind accommodating it for her customers. 

Hollister residents Maria Mercado and Daniel Espinoza made the trip to the fairgrounds to grab a little bit of everything. Mercado said she found out about the event through a flyer on Facebook.

“I was like, we gotta go check it out and have whatever they’re selling here,” she said. 

Espinoza said it was either this or nothing since there’s no entertainment such as amusement park rides.

Dara Tobias, CEO and fair manager, said this weekend’s drive-thru event was a chance to partner with Butler’s Amusements to make some revenue and bring something to the community itself. 

“It’s kind of a win for everybody,” she said.

The carnival industry took a big hit this year as the Covid-19 pandemic forced county and state fairs to postpone or cancel their scheduled events due to restrictions on public gatherings.

The Board of the 33rd District Agricultural Association last month unanimously approved a motion to cancel the traditional San Benito County Fair slated for the first week of October.

Tobias said she wasn’t surprised at last weekend’s turnout because every time they need something, the community comes through. She said she borrowed ideas from other county fairs throughout the state that brought this weekend’s drive-thru event to life.  

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done it so it’s a learning experience,” she said.

Kyle Quint, owner of Kyle’s Killer Lemonade, said he heard a recent Merced County drive-thru experience was “wildly successful.” Alameda County, he added, has been hosting a successful food truck series on Friday and Saturday evenings through Aug. 1.

Tobias said they’ve been brainstorming ideas on bringing in more food choices, and possibly some live entertainment. 

“We have to map it out and see what’s possible,” she said. 

Martinez, who resides in Los Banos, said it’s been nice opening up in San Benito County because she feels like it’s close enough that she feels like she’s helping out her own community. 

Martinez’s grandfather, Butch Butler, founded the company nearly 50 years ago. She grew up in the traveling carnival business and even began managing a game booth as a teenager.

“We have more than 100 employees on the carnival and we’re all impacted,” she said. “We’re like a traveling community ourselves. It hit all of us dramatically.”

Quint said he’s been out of business since shortly after the pandemic started in mid-March. His place is on pause until he gets word of another drive-thru event or their schedule picks back up.

Quint said he didn’t hesitate to jump onboard when he heard about the July 17-19 event in Tres Pinos.

“We’re just happy we got the call to come out here,” he said. 

Quint has been running his lemonade stand for the past eight years. He said the Covid-19 pandemic impacted them and the fair industry in a big way. 

“It completely put a big business out of business technically,” he said. “We’re postponed until who knows how long but we’re just hoping that everything pans out and everyone can get back together.”

Martinez has found other ways of income, including having a side job and renting a commercial kitchen to stay afloat.    

“It’s not easy but we’re hustlers,” she said. “I was raised a carny, I’m a carny brat.”

Martinez said they used to have a backup plan by booking other events but now they have major hurdles such as trying to convince health officials to allow them to operate. She said they took the best precautions possible by wearing masks, gloves and putting food on a tray for a contactless handoff.

“We’re trying different places, we’re open to anything,” she said. “We will not say no because we need money, we need to live.”

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