Last year was tough for Gilroy Garlic Festival President Tom Cline after the board and festival association decided that the annual festivities had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“All I could come up with was a yard sale sign, ‘We miss you but we’ll see you next year,’” he said.
He kept his word and the Garlic Festival returned for its 41st edition last weekend with a drive-thru Gourmet Alley experience at Gilroy Presbyterian Church.
The event kicked off on July 23 as guests were already lined up as early as 3:30pm to pick up their food at the church located at 6000 Miller Ave.
Planned over two weekends of July 23-25 and July 30-Aug. 1, garlic fans picked up some of their favorites from pepper steak sandwiches to garlic fries during the drive-thru Gourmet Alley event, which was the first event since 2019.
The committee has been working on the drive-thru for 10 months and it had to reimagine the festival due to restrictions with Covid-19.
In April, as they were coming up with decisions, Cline said they had to take a risk because an outdoor kitchen like the one they set up had to be certified. They talked with county officials and were able to figure something out.
“And they know us based on 41 years of experience,” Cline said. “So they worked with us and it all worked out.”
Cline said they were hoping things would open up by this time and they have. However, the number of cars driving through won’t be nearly as close to the 90,000 people that typically showed up to Christmas Hill Park on the final weekend of July.
The food vendors know how much of each ingredient they need to purchase for a huge festival but it’s a different story when they’re doing a drive-thru event that’s never been done before.
But, Cline mentioned that the board members were good at estimating how many guests would attend and where vendors were getting their product.
“Expectations, you kind of worry, but we’ve met expectations,” he said.
The official Gilroy Garlic Festival website reported that meal tickets were sold out on the first weekend. Pre-order meals are still available for the weekend of July 30-Aug. 1.
Cline said there were some people who ordered a meal about two weeks in advance but they saw more orders pouring in as the festival drew closer. They expect to see the same this weekend.
“You knew that people would support it, people love their Garlic Festival food,” he said.
The menu features fan favorites such as garlic fries at $10 an order and their world-famous garlic bread at $10 for a half loaf.
Other items include pepper steak sandwich ($14), sausage sandwich ($14), shrimp scampi ($10) and bottled water or soda ($5).
Guests can also order a steak or sausage combo ($25) that comes fully loaded with a pepper steak sandwich or sausage sandwich, shrimp scampi and garlic bread.
Cline said they were doing about 100 transactions per half hour, which may fluctuate depending how the flow is.
“We really want people to understand the success of it and the potential of what it will be moving forward,” he said.
Cline mentioned they had plenty of hurdles to jump to get the festival back up and running. One of those was money because the Festival Association had no income after missing out on last year’s revenue.
They asked for volunteers to sign up to sell shirts but it was hard for them to get people to join because they were apprehensive about being outside.
“The key was our resiliency,” he said. “Gilroy has so much resilience as a community and weathering its challenges, weathering obstacles, we’ve come through.”
The Festival Association and board members aren’t sure when they’ll be able to return to a true festival and it’s a challenge that a lot of organizations are currently faced with.
Cline said the drive-thru event at least gives them something to look at and discuss the different possibilities of what the festival can look like in the future.
In the meantime, the pyro chefs and the BBQ guys still have one more weekend to entertain guests. And Cline’s favorite part of it all is being able to watch the volunteers and regulars enjoying the moment.
“While it’s smaller, it’s the same thing,” he said. “You get the heartbeat and that’s what you really tap into. Then seeing the people drive up, smiling and getting their food, that’s really what it’s all about.”
To pre-order meals for July 30-Aug. 1, visit gilroygarlicfestivalassociation.com.
The Festival Association also held a sold-out dinner at Fortino Winery on July 24, and a golf tournament scheduled for July 30 has also sold out.