G-fest Saturday: ‘One of the best days we’ve ever had’

Nichelle Lara cracks a smile after being shown her face paint by

In what Gourmet Alley volunteer of 20 years Mike Sterner

one of the best days we’ve ever had

in Garlic Festival history, standing in line for a combo platter
at 1:30 p.m. Saturday felt like waiting to ride Space Mountain at
G-Fest 33: Watch what happened
When in Gilroy, do as the Gilroyans do
Afternoon heat no problem for garlic lovers
Listen here: Festival bursting with live music
‘Say garlic! We want your festival photos
Today’s breaking news:

In what Gourmet Alley volunteer of 20 years Mike Sterner coined “one of the best days we’ve ever had” in Garlic Festival history, standing in line for a combo platter at 1:30 p.m. Saturday felt like waiting to ride Space Mountain at Disneyland.

But where there’s a craving, there’s a will. Visitors who flock to Gilroy in want of garlicky goodness are poster children for a dogged commitment to good eating.

“No,” replied San Franciscan Wilson Chan, a festival first-timer and stranger to garlic ice cream. “I haven’t had it. That’s why I’m willing to wait.”

Demand was off the hook several feet away at the Christopher Ranch garlic fries booth, where Young Life volunteer Ron Zimmerman observed, “we’ve had a line like this all day.”

Zimmerman pointed to a trail of more than 100 people stretching yards back.

Sifting through a pile of empty boxes, he estimated their booth had flown through roughly 1,200 pounds of fries, and would reach 1,500 by the end of the day.

Amid Saturday’s massive whirlwind of people, music, food and libation, Sgt. Wes Stanford with the Gilroy Police Department had no arrests to report by 6 p.m. That’s excluding rowdy drinkers removed from festival grounds, a consequence routinely doled out to revelers who repeatedly take off their shirts after being asked more than one occasion to keep it on.

On average during the festival, “we do about 15 of those, ‘I had too many beers’ a day,'” said Stanford.

But, as Rebecca Arbach of Huntington Beach observed, the festival’s execution “is very organized. No one is getting out of hand, no one is getting too crazy, no one is getting too drunk.”

Speaking of alcohol, Gilroy Chamber of Commerce beer garden volunteers Kristal Salgado and Marie Salgado said Stella Artois and Shock Top are the moneymakers.

Thoroughly enjoying his beer was Anthony Renteria of San Jose, who likes to pair one good thing with another.

“Garlic and Belgium Wheat?” he said, considering the marriage of flavors after taking a sip of beer and lick of garlic ice cream. “I’d recommend it. It’s a good combination.”

Besides the wait for free garlic ice cream, combo platters and garlic fries, “crazy” applies to dancers who cast aside all inhibition and let loose on the dance floor. Talent including Lucas Ohio & The Shamblers, JJ Hawg, Kip Moore and Shane Dwight kept people grooving all day long.

After the Great Cook-Off ended at 12 p.m., other headliners for the day such as Angelo Sosa took to the main stage at 3 p.m. for a live demonstration in front of a packed grandstand. The runner-up on Season 7 of “Top Chef” has a forward approach and frisky sense of humor.

“I don’t have crabs…that was a joke,” said Sosa. “But I like cooking with crabs.”

Viewers in the front row were all over his garlic brittle after Sosa hopped off-stage to hand out free samples. Loud crunching noises echoed through the microphone as people masticated the novelty morsels.

Over in Gourmet Alley, foot traffic was a nonstop cycle of people standing in line to eat, people eating and people sitting in the shade, recovering from their food comas.

“It’s his first time at the festival,” said Hughson resident Christine Baker, affectionately petting her husband’s head. “He just tires out easy.”

Richard Baker was curled up on a shaded hay bale amid a swarm of diners, sleeping peacefully with his head in Christine’s lap.

As lines for combo plates amassed to a steady count of 100 people or more, several visitors were re-thinking the decision to pre-purchase their meal.

Waiting dead last around 2 p.m. was Luz Donahue of Bakersfield, who said “I figured I paid for it, so I gotta use it.”

Not that the 7,000 combo entrees sold online as of Saturday is a bad thing. It’s a sizeable increase from 2010, when sales of combo plates totaled 7,000 for the entire weekend, according to festival spokesman Peter Ciccarelli.

With a success rate like that, another booth and shorter line may be needed to sway visitors like Mary Hvistendahl to reconsider her stance on buying the combo plate ahead of time.

“I will never do this again. It’s not worth the discount,” said the San Franciscan, who timed her wait at 20 minutes.

This sentiment was echoed by San Jose residents Diana Lin and Peter Abramson, who estimated their wait at 30 to 40 minutes.

“Worth it? Not anymore,” said Abramson, a first-time attendee.

Gourmet Alley volunteers weren’t the only ones with their hands full.

Later on, pepper steak sandwiches ran out around 5:30 p.m. – a slight hiccup that exemplified the finesse and patience of volunteers like Debby Esposito. She spent 15 minutes explaining and graciously apologizing to a guest why the Alley Wrap was being substituted for the Pepper Steak Sandwich on his combo plate.

“I don’t want to through that again,” she joked afterwards, of the small but well-handled confrontation. “I was scared for my life.”

Taking a break from overseeing the madhouse that is the Festival Mercantile, Retail Co-Chair Mollie Botill said hot items like the Lucero olive oil, Garlic Festival logo wine glasses and brand new beer glasses were a big hit and selling out fast. Every garlic peeler flew off the shelf Friday, she said.

“Despite the happy chaos, Botill highlighted a team “camaraderie” among volunteers, saying she would rather work the festival than attend it.

“They call us ‘the Cullen clan,’ she said, of her seven family members also donning the turquoise polo worn by festival officials. Cullen is Botill’s maiden name.

On display near the Mercantile, the first, second and third place winners – including the rest of submitted entries from the Garlic Festival association poster contest – attracted interested passersby. Many paused to mull over their favorite submission before casting a vote for the people’s choice award.

“It feels like it’s in a kitchen, and it’s warm,” said Ene George, an Los Angeles visitor who found herself partial to the second place still photograph taken by Kris Knutson of Gilroy. “I can almost smell the food.”

Knutson was the contest winner in 2001 and 2007.

The Skychair booth was also a shopper magnet. As inquisitive buyers stopped to take a load off their feet in one of hanging, hammock-like seats suspended in the air, proprietor Tim Halverson said “this was the busiest day I’ve had in four years.”

Halverson, who hails from Colorado, is a Garlic Festival vendor of two decades.

Food and merchandise aren’t the only aspects of the festival racking impressive figures.

On Friday, the Rotary-sponsored bone marrow tent pulled in a record-breaking number of 154 registrants, compared to 99 in 2010, and 52 in 2009.

On Saturday around 5 p.m., the day’s count was 196.

“Bone marrow is not as happy of a subject as garlic or beer,” noted volunteer Paul Vanni, who is in charge of the booth. “But 200 people in one day is very impressive.”

By the numbers:

– As of Saturday, 24,000 tickets have sold online. In 2010, the number of tickets sold online for the entire three days of the festival was 8,000

– As of Saturday, 7,000 combo plates have sold online. In 2010, the number of combo plates sold for the entire three days of the festival – Tickets sold for Friday Locals Day total 2,919. In 2010, tickets sold for Friday Locals Day totaled 2,000

– 1,000 Alley Wraps sold on Friday; by 1:30 p.m. another 1,000 had sold

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