In preparing for more than 100,000 visitors to descend on the Garlic Capital for three days of eating, dancing and wearing funny garlic hats, the minutiae associated with executing an event of this magnitude is a story unto itself.
As the 34th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival rapidly approaches (July 27, 28 and 29), we caught up with Executive Director Brian Bowe and 2012 Festival President Hugh Davis. We got the 411 on a helium crisis, why Blue Moon beer is awesome and the number of Facebook users who think the Garlic Festival is something worth “liking.”
Helium crisis: ‘It's a real thing’
The iconic white balloon that's kept airborne for the last three years over the Christmas Hill Park garlic fries booth – guiding foodies to a humble tent like the Star of David where potatoes are sliced, fried, smothered in chopped cloves and served to the hungry thousands – might be grounded this year due to an unusually long nationwide helium shortage.
The second most abundant element in the universe is disappearing into thin air, due to scarcity in production at various helium plants around the world, causing inconsistent supply imports from global providers. The drought is prompting professional balloon artists and party supply stores – the folks whose “bread and butter” relies on the gas known as “He” – to stock up on the commodity with guarded vigilance.
“People that do balloons are hoarding their tanks of helium,” chuckled Bowe, who has made countless calls in search of the commodity. “Macy’s already has this market cornered for their Thanksgiving Day stash.”
Bowe has no idea if his hunt for the lighter-than-air commodity will end successfully in time to inflate and elevate the big white Garlic Fries balloon for the third year in a row. The same goes for a brand-new red “Garlic Fries” balloon, which the festival purchased this year and was planning to fly over the Ranch side garlic fries booth. Keeping the pair of rubber orbs afloat for three days will take five tanks of helium at a cost of $600.
“I will be scouting,” said Bowe. “So if you know anybody with a high, squeaky voice ... let me know.”
Beer: The source of all inspiration
From midnight black, to avocado green, to Caribbean turquoise, the Garlic Festival's Board of Directors sport a distinctive collared shirt or polo each year chosen by the volunteer president that sets them apart from the festival-going masses.
The inspiration for this years’ garlicky garb materialized in a sublime summer moment as 2012 Festival President Hugh Davis sipped a certain Belgian white brew on his back deck.
Acting on his “presidential prerogative,” Davis decided the colors of the Blue Moon beer label (an “Equal sugar packet blue” and a soft, buttery yellow, which appears faintly in the polo shirt’s logo) would make attractive hues for this year’s shirt.
“I looked at it and said, ‘I’m locked in. Those are my colors right here,’” recalled Davis.
Goodbye: Alley Wrap and Chicken Stir Fry
The festival’s legendary lineup of hallowed Gourmet Alley staples is something of an institution.
Thousands make the pilgrimage each year to feast on succulent scampi, pepper steak sandwiches, scrumptious stuffed mushrooms or flame-up fired calamari prepared with the sure-handed showmanship of Gilroy’s elitist Epicureans – the blaze-loving Pyro Chefs.
It's no surprise, then, that tweaks to Gourmet Alley’s celebrated menu don’t go unnoticed.
After being introduced in 2003 by local cooking and comedy duo Sam Bozzo and Gene Sakahara (an irrepressible pair of Garlic Festival ambassadors known familiarly onstage as “SakaBozzo”), the Garlic Ginger Chicken Stir Fry has officially been retired.
“They hoped it would make it for a year or two,” said Bowe. “Instead, it had a successful run of nine festivals.”
As for last year's debutante dish – the newest addition to Gourmet Alley since garlic fries were added in 2007 – the Surf & Turf festival wrap will exit as a one-hit wonder.
Created by Milias Restaurant co-owners Adam Sanchez and Ann Zyburra, reactions to the hand-held, garlic-infused, steak-and-shrimp creation bundled with rice and aioli in lavash bread were mixed. Feedback from 2011 diners ranged from “delicious” to “so-so” to “needs more sauce.”
Highlighting the “great success” the festival experienced last year with the sale of its combo plates, Davis explained the event’s leaders are centering their focus on longtime staples by going “back to basics.”
Hello: New fryers, ovens and shade for the masses
Speaking of combo plates, the Garlic Festival killed it last year with more than 15,000 sold (regularly $12, available for $10 with an online admission ticket).
Responding to the overwhelming popularity for combo plate I or II (whole meals that combine various items from Gourmet Alley), organizers are adding more combo plate windows “so lines won’t be as long,” noted Davis.
With last year’s wait times stretching up to 40 minutes long, and lines amassing more than 100 people back, it's a good example of reactionary planning.
A new online ticket company vendor is also supplying organizers with handheld scanners, which should alleviate an issue that arose last year when ticket-takers experienced trouble scanning ticket bar codes on smart phones.
The festival also purchased 12 new French fryers and additional bread ovens “so we can really ramp up and give customers what they want,” said Davis. “We’re doubling our capacity.”
In addition to the brand-new teen zone featuring a handful of thrill-seeker rides and activities, a “very long and coming” 6,500-square-foot shade canopy will grace the Vineyard Stage on the Ranch side of Christmas Hill Park, providing relaxing refuge from the blazing afternoon sun.
To infinity, and online!
The Garlic Festival may have “crawled into the 21st century,” as Bowe jokes, but better late than never. An app for iPhone and Android cell phones is still in the works; a function Bowe is “hoping to launch imminently.” The app will likely include the festival's official program, in addition to social media updates alerting festival-goers of cool things happening at various times throughout the weekend.
“We're also dipping our toe into Pandora,” said Bowe, in reference to the festival's online advertising with the popular Internet radio service.
The festival is riding shotgun on the social media bandwagon, boasting 600 Twitter followers and more than 19,000 “likes” after creating a Facebook page in 2009. Bowe said the Garlic Festival Association is thinking up a special prize for its 20,000th fan, such as free tickets and a Herbie the Bobblehead figurine.
Gilroy, Garlic and Giants: A home-run combination
After the wildly successful and “Herculean” undertaking of re-creating a mini-Gourmet Alley at Seals Plaza inside AT&T Park, Bowe and Davis returned raving about the 40-plus volunteers who labored from 10 a.m. to midnight June 29 to host the “First Annual Giants Garlic Fest.”
While the Garlic Festival Association will be lucky to break even after covering the shindig’s expenses, Bowe said the publicity was well worth it.
Davis hopes the event, which the Giant's marketing team suggested in the first place, is the start of a new tradition.
“To me, that was a big deal, that kind of recognition,” said Davis. “I'd like to see if we get a phone call again come January.”
As for the Giants Garlic Fest limited edition of famed festival mascot Herbie the Bobblehead all decked out in a San Francisco Giants uniform, Bowe isn’t sure if the figurine will be on sale at the festival. It is listed on eBay, however, at prices ranging from $11 to $40.
Bad for your breath, better for the earth
The Garlic Festival is in the third year of its “green initiative,” which is aimed at requiring all food vendors to use compostable containers only. That means “no plastics, no foil,” said Davis. “Whatever the attendee buys their food on, or in, or with, should be able to put that in the green food compost bins.”
Davis said the festival is getting “better and better and better” at working more closely with Recology, a municipal disposal company that specializes in recycling and composting.
What about that big red barn?
Most locals are familiar with this rustic piece of Americana. Built in the late 1800s, the antiquated edifice sits empty and neglected on the Ranch side of Christmas Hill Park.
As the universe of the Garlic Festival springs up every year, creating a little world around the paint-chipped time capsule now barred behind chain link fencing, the mystery of the red barn’s fate persists.
Last year, City Administrator Tom Haglund says the area “likely comes under the category of being deferred, but not forgotten.”
Up until 2004, the Garlic Festival Association was allowed to keep its signs in the barn during festival off-season.
President Davis brought up an interesting suggestion: “It could be a Garlic Festival Museum,” he said.