33rd Garlic Festival attendance: 109,067

Local Rudy Perez jokes around while braiding garlic Sunday in

Gilroy’s hallowed Garlic Festival returned to form this weekend,
as Monday totals tabbed the three-day event’s attendance at
109,067, festival president Kurt Svardal said. Though not a
record-setting figure, it’s still roughly 10,000 more than a year
ago.
Watch a video of what people were eating at the festival
here.
View more photos of the 2011 Gilroy Garlic Festival at our
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Watch a video of what people were eating at the festival here.

The numbers are in: The 33rd annual Gilroy Garlic Festival stinks of success.

Gilroy’s hallowed, herby festival returned to form this weekend, as Monday totals tabbed the three-day event’s attendance at 109,067 – almost 12,000 more than last year and the most since current executive director Brian Bowe took over in 2006.

Ben Roybal, who volunteered in a Gilroy Chamber of Commerce beer booth, said the reasons were simple.

“Music, hot weather and cold beer,” Roybal smiled. “Oh, and food, like garlic mussels. Those are so awesome. That’s what Gilroy’s about right there.”

What the Garlic Festival is about will also be evident, said Bowe, who estimated with some confidence that roughly $300,000 would be dolled out to local nonprofits.

“It was a great year. The weather was perfect, the crowds were perfect,” Bowe said. “I can’t wait for a couple months from now when we get to mail out checks to all the wonderful charitable organizations on behalf of which everybody worked so hard.”

If returnable revenues do reach that milestone, the festival’s 33-year giving spree would climb to approximately $9.1 million.

“We’ve got to get the bills, too,” festival President Kurt Svardal pointed out. “But I think we’ll do very well when it comes to charitable donations.”

The festival hauled in $2.15 million dollars overall, Bowe said – an 11 percent year-over-year increase – and sponsorship revenues and other incoming fees could raise that total by another $400,000.

Festival-goers gobbled up approximately 25,000 online tickets, which dwarfs roughly 8,000 a year ago, said festival spokesman Peter Ciccarelli.

And thanks to more than 7,961 combo plates sold online, volunteers at Christmas Hill Park’s Gourmet Alley saw a 23 percent increase in sales, bringing in $612,000 this year. This was the first year visitors had the option to buy a combo plate ticket online – a $2 discount – extending lines at least 100-people deep Sunday, for the second day in a row. Volunteers helped soothe any standing pains with offering of cold water, which garnered vocal appreciation, festival vice president Hugh Davis said Monday. Each day as the festival waned into its final hours, some booths still boasted 40-person lines.

“Online sales were a huge success this year,” said Svardal, who attributed the boost in online purchases to a “tekkie-style crowd” that latched on to the festival’s marketing efforts through emails, Twitter and Facebook.

Of course, the increase in sales could be contributed to couples like David and Debbie Simms of Santa Cruz. Their Friday strategy was nearly flawless: They arrived early, beating the heat and the masses, sampling their favorite garlic fare.

“We loved the garlic ice cream, ” Debbie Simms said. “It’s too bad you can’t buy it in stores.”

After taking an afternoon drive to Monterey, however, the couple realized they had made a mistake.

“We said, ‘We didn’t get that garlic chicken stir fry,” Debbie Simms laughed.

So the couple drove an hour back to the festival to satisfy their stomachs and their conscience. David Simms said they visited the festival one other time, two years ago, but left early because it was “too hot and too crowded.”

“This time we came back. And I’m glad we did,” he said.

On the park side, at separate booths to buy garlic fries and garlic ice cream – a pair of popular food stops all three days – lines were also packed, reaching 100 people outward. At a beer booth near the newly renovated amphitheater, patrons learned the festival’s souvenir tin beer mugs had sold out by 3 p.m. Saturday.

The Rotary Club wine pavilion, a popular, shady spot, pulled in approximately $47,000 – a $10,000 increase from a year ago, Bowe said. The pavilion was bursting at the seems from Day 1.

“This is the most people we’ve had in here for a Friday, by a third,” said Renella, who has headed the pavilion for the past eight years.

Though the promise of a cool, dim place to sip cold, delicious wine attracted droves of visitors, Renella said there was more to it than that.

“It’s always been a cool place,” he said. “People have a little more money now, and there’s just more people here period for a Friday.”

By 12:30 p.m. Saturday, temperatures hovered around 80 degrees sending some for cover under the shade structure over the Great Garlic Cook-Off stage. Carolyn and Bill Lee of San Lorenzo took a seat, not to escape the heat – “It’s been unbearable in years’ past. It’s great today,” Bill said – but to wait for the next show.

Thirteen shows – including the Great Garlic Cook-Off and zany antics of local celebrity chefs Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo – had visitors returning again and again to the cook-off stage.

Early Sunday evening – two hours before the festival was set to close – approximately 30 people jumped to their feet at the shady amphitheater, showing off their salsa abilities to a version of “Oye Como Va” performed by The Vern Brooks Orchestra. In all, attendees were treated to 44 concerts one three stages, including well-received Beatles and Elvis Presley cover artists that had visitors swarming for a front-row spot.

“There’s a lot of festivals in the world, but none of them touch this one,” said festival Vice President Hugh Davis Sunday evening.

And how many festivals conclude with their presidents on the wrong end of soggy prank? Around 7 p.m. Sunday, Svardal, with the help of a fire hose from the Gilroy Fire Department, doused the iconic giant garlic bulb, but not before a bit of mischief caused some volunteers to start their clean-up efforts in soaked clothes when a brief water war ensued.

Earlier Sunday, another, more substantial crisis was averted at Gourmet Alley.

“We reached ‘critical stage’ calamari,” Svardal said.

By mid-morning, fear began to seep into the Alley that customers might be at sea over a missing – and essential – festival food group. Svardal dreaded that, “there was no calamari within 300 miles of Gilroy,” he said.

“Calamari has been cleaned out as far as the eye can see,” festival spokesman Peter Ciccarelli added around 2 p.m.

If that weren’t enough, officials also reported a beef shortage at the prized pepper steak sandwich booth, and volunteers were dispatched to local Nob Hill stores to claim nearly ever last ounce of bread.

Svardal said he called Nob Hill and told them to “start baking.” Grocery workers scrambled to supply the doughy necessity for approaching festival volunteers.

“I don’t know when Nob Hill is going to have bread again,” Svardal smiled.

He said volunteers “literally filled the bed of a pickup (with bread) and drove it into the Alley.”

Davis laughed, “People were surprised at how fresh the bread was.”

One-thousand extra pounds of calamari were later located at two warehouses in Morgan Hill and San Jose, and volunteers hauled in more than 1,500 pounds of extra steak to keep Pepper Steak sandwiches in patrons’ hands.

“We had to make adjustments,” Svardal said. “You just do what you’ve got to do to make it work.”

Some were concerned the famous flame-ups by pyro-chefs would be disrupted without calamari, though worries fizzled as the chefs took to their row for all to “ooh” and “ahh” over the great balls of fire.

“We’re scrambling, but we’re not letting anyone go home hungry,” said Vito Mercado, co-chairman of Gourmet Alley, who has volunteered for eight years. “I just keep looking out the (booth) window and seeing all the lines,” he said.

Svardal said festival officials next year may need to beef-up the volume at Gourmet Alley: more food, and maybe more booth space for the most popular items that draw lines into the hundreds.

Officials said park- and ranch-side clean-up efforts started as soon as the festival closed at 7 p.m. Sunday. It won’t be long before the area is returned to its pre-festival look, save some patches of dead, trampled grass, Davis said.

“That place will look much different Wednesday,” he said.

33rd annual Gilroy Garlic Festival

Attendance: 109,067

– Friday – 21,654

– Saturday – 46,385

– Sunday – 41,028

Online tickets sold: 29,152

Combo plates sold: 7,961

Gourmet Alley revenue: Approx. $612,000

– Pepper steaks: $65,767 (up from $57,519 last year)

– Pasta con pesto: $27,716 (up from $22,252 last year)

– Alley Wraps: $13,834 (first year)

– Revenue expected to return to nonprofits: Approx. $300,000

Festival attendance over the last 6 years: 613,267

Source: Brian Bowe, Garlic Festival executive director

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