The smell of financial distress overwhelms the Gilroy Garlic Festival

The Gilroy Garlic Festival started with what its founders like to say was a “crazy idea”: the town of Gilroy is in garlic country, so why not have a little fun, raise some money and attract attention by publicly celebrating the pungent weed?

The Bay Area farming town has been there for 42 years, attracting hundreds of thousands of garlic enthusiasts a year and making the festival one of California’s biggest harvest celebrations.

On Saturday, however, Gilroy was reeling from the announcement by a festival board that the event had been canceled indefinitely due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the insurance requirements of the town and adjoining parking areas being absorbed by housing estates.

“Many of us are still trying to process this emotional blow to our city and festival fans across the state,” Gilroy Vice Mayor Peter Leroe-Muñoz said. “It is a painful loss of much of our cultural heritage, as well as funds generated for local charity work.”

The big question now is whether Gilroy can revive or somehow replace the massive event that embodied many of the most appealing attributes of small-town Americana, as well as homegrown cuisines. garlic and other reminders of its agricultural roots.

“Finding another way to tell the world what makes us so special,” Leroe-Muñoz said, “will require a region-wide discussion between residents and the agricultural industry.”

The bad news came Friday in a statement from Tom Cline, former president of the Garlic Festival Assn., and Cindy Fellows, vice president-elect.

“Obviously we’re frustrated and disappointed,” they said. “Our world-renowned festival has helped showcase Gilroy and South County for 42 years while raising millions of dollars for local charities.”

The popular food festival suffered a tragic setback in 2019 when a gunman opened fire, killing three people, including two children, and injuring 17 others. Several people injured in the shooting sued event organizers, claiming neglect of security contributed to the deadly encounter.

Compounding the problems, the all-volunteer festival association generated no revenue from the start of the pandemic in 2020 until July 2021, according to Cline, who was recently named Spice Man of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. by Gilroy.

But the festival had been facing growing financial problems for years before the shootings and the pandemic.

“The aftermath of the tragic shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2019 has brought to light the pre-existing financial crisis of the Garlic Festival Assn. said Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley.

“The loss of vital adjacent parking now consumed by housing which began almost 10 years ago has led to the gradual depletion of their reserves, a path which was unsustainable and without the ability to adapt to changing conditions” , she said.

It was a poignant end to the festival that has helped make California the most festive agricultural state, with a cornucopia of crop celebrities – dried beans, avocados, dates, kiwis, almond blossoms – sprouting from Oxnard to Sonora.

Along with the Castroville Artichoke Festival, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has garnered enough attention to spark parodies in several of the state’s trendiest small towns. Monte Rio, for example, once hosted the annual Banana Slug Festival — the “Slugfest” — and Coulterville sponsors a CoyoteFest, while Columbia draws crowds eager to honor poison ivy.

The first Gilroy Garlic Festival was held in 1979 with the help of 50 community volunteers, who did everything from peeling the so-called stinking rose and pouring the beer to selling printed tickets – all 5,000 of them.

An aroma of success surrounded the initial event, which generated $19,000 for the community and newspaper headlines across the country, including one in a Washington Post that proclaimed, “Fame is nothing to sniff at.” at Gilroy.

Enthusiastic sponsors of the festival over the past four decades include Christopher Ranch, who has provided over two tons of fresh garlic each year for its culinary offerings and has supported events and projects including the Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen Annual pageant and improvements to the amphitheater stage.

Ken Christopher, a ranch executive whose grandfather, Don Christopher, co-founded the festival, was unavailable for comment.

But Steve Janisch, the festival’s 39-year-old chef and among many Gilroy residents who are struggling to come to terms with the cancellation, said: “The situation is frustrating.”

“Me and my festival team were very tight-knit for years,” he said. “We were in charge of cooking scamps and squids and putting a lot of garlic in them.”

Sarah J. Greer