A Look Back: 2016 Garlic Fest

All Aflame

The 38th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival has come and gone, and while attendance numbers are down over last year’s, organizers say they should still be on track to reaching $11 million in donations over the lifetime of the event.
At latest count, 82,000 attended this year’s Gilroy Garlic Festival, down from 95,000 last year, but it earned $2,305,234, up 7 percent from 2015. The festival earns money from the admission, mercantile, food at Gourmet Alley and parking. Beer, wine, sangria and mimosa sales go to the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Gilroy Foundation, respectively.
“We felt really good about the festival,” said Dave Reynolds, Gilroy Garlic Festival president, during a post-festival discussion with the Dispatch.
“We feel like it was a huge success with people who did come. It was a mellow crowd and we had really unbelievable entertainment, amazing food.”
The festival runs a volunteer-equity program where individual volunteer hours are tracked and after all festival expenses paid, attributed a dollar amount. Four thousand volunteers participated this year.
Brian Bowe, executive director of the festival for the last 11 years, said during festival preparations that the event gives on average between $250,000 to $300,000 each year to participating charities, including youth sports teams and clubs.
Reynolds said the festival will grow next year, “so we can raise more money for charity. That’s why we do this every year.”
Citing hot weather during the days leading up to the festival, which can depress ticket pre-sales and online sales, Reynolds said organizers remained excited about this year’s event, which featured successful first-time cooking events such as the Champions for Charity competition and Gilroy Garli-Que BBQ Challenge.
Both events, he said, were “really loved” by attendees and participants alike.
This year’s festival also had some heartfelt moments: Gerry Foisy, the city’s beloved Mr.Garlic, received the golden ticket and announced his retirement after playing the festival mascot for 29 years. Last week, after the festival, the Foisy family shared publicly that Gerry Foisy is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
The “twins separated at birth” Gilroy cooking duo, SakkaBozzo (otherwise known as Gene Sakahara and Sam Bozzo), performed their final cooking demonstration on the festival stage after 25 years of regaling audiences.
This year also saw the return of the “Garlic Train,” a chartered special event train that aimed to make it easier for attendees in North County to get to the festival.
Reynolds said nearly 500 attendees took the non-stop train service on Saturday and Sunday from San Jose Diridon Station to downtown Gilroy. Limited to festival attendees, the train left once from San Jose at 10 a.m. and returned from Gilroy station at 5 p.m.
“We got great news and great results back from everybody that took [the train]. So we hope to continue that in the future,” said Reynolds, adding that for next year, festival organizers aim to increase ridership.
Of note, he added, is the number of attendees who got to the festival via bike or walking along the levee trails leading into Christmas Hill Park. Bike valet and bike parking was available at the park this year.
“We did have big utilization of our bike parking,” said Reynolds.
The biggest draw of every festival is the food, and Reynolds said the event’s best-seller continues to be the famous combo plates—a sampling of all the festival’s favorite victuals—deep-fried calamari, pesto pasta and sausage roll—on one paper plate.
“Yeah absolutely, the most popular were the combo plates,” said Reynolds. Over 14,000 of them were sold. The most popular individual item was the pepper steak sandwich at over 7,000 sold.
“The other big one is the 10,000 free garlic ice cream cones that were given out,” he added.
After all the numbers roll in, the festival’s governing board will meet to review each aspect of the event—what worked, and what perhaps didn’t. Overall, Reynolds does not foresee any drastic changes to the city’s premier annual event.
“We will continue to drive the highest quality food, the best entertainment,” said Reynolds. “We’re excited about the way the festival came together, the work that everybody put in. Now we’re just focusing on continuing to make it better and better every year.”