Multiple smaller events will be held featuring classic cuisine

Gilroy Garlic Festival Board of DIrectors

By Keira Silver

Volunteers with the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association intend to keep alive the spirit of the world’s most famous food festival. They’ll put on a series of smaller, yet equally flavorful festivities throughout the spring and summer.

South Valley residents get ready for some delicious garlic dishes, fun games, and iconic music. The nonprofit plans to bring back old and new events.

For four decades, the garlic festival served as the “identity” of Gilroy. At its peak, more than 100,000 visitors came every year to Christmas Hill Park the last weekend of July to sample the garlicky cuisine, enjoy top bands and entertainers, and shop for one-of-a-kind items. During that time, it raised more than $12 million to support South Valley nonprofits and schools.

Locals and tourists loved this popular celebration of Gilroy’s most iconic crop, and folks celebrated with gusto. Many gathered to try the famous garlic ice cream, which boasts its origin from the area. The event put an international spotlight on the Gilroy community.

That all changed July 28, 2019. As the festival came to a close, a gunman carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered the festival grounds and killed three people (two of them children) and injured 17. Combined with the pandemic, the mass shooting shut down the festival for the past five years.

Now, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association organizers hope to eventually bring back the beloved event.

The president of the association, Cindy Fellows, is a native Gilroyan with a decades-long career in the dental field. She has been involved with the festival since the mid-‘80s.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” she said. “I’m passionate about what we do for the city (and) for our community.”

The reason there can be no festival is because the city of Gilroy requires a $10 million insurance policy. Without it, any event the association hosts cannot be held on city property, she said.

“We now are trying to figure out ways to still have events (and) to still give back to our community,” she said. “We’ve changed gears of how we actually donate the money back, so it is now through a grant process. Last year, we were able to give out $70,000.”

Fellows says the events are smaller this time and require many volunteers. The dates for the events range over several months.

“Instead of one weekend, we spread out for several events,” she said. “We have a few things that are still tentative … we don’t have a for-sure date.”

One of the events this year is “Day on the Ridge” which is a giving-back day for St. Joseph’s Family Center Food Pantry. The event takes place on a family-owned property in the Eagle Ridge housing division, and it includes music and food. The association will be serving garlic festival food at the event, bringing guests the taste of beloved Gourmet Alley cuisine.

Other fundraisers include the fourth annual Garlic Golf Classic tournament at Gilroy Golf Course, and a Blossoming Affair-Dinner in a Cherry Orchard. A music performance is in the works as well, Fellows said.

The Cherry Orchard dinner is on the B&T Farms property in Gilroy. Fellows believes it is a beautiful event for residents to enjoy a night out.

“You actually get to sit amongst the cherry trees, right in Gilroy,” she said. “We are doing that again this year.”

The association utilizes social media and sponsoring as the main means of advertising the events and the “festival” to the public. The organization relies heavily on volunteerism from the community, Fellows said.

“We reach out to the high schools,” she said. “The kids have worked our different events we do, and they get their community service hours.”

Although Fellows is excited to get the smaller events back up and running, she hopes to have the traditional Gilroy Garlic Festival again in the future.

“It’s taken a lot of retraining of our association (and) retraining of Gilroy because it’s not the same weekend it’s always been,” she said. “We have multiple events now. We’re still in the process of bridging that gap. We’re a bit tied to only certain events right now.”

Fellows wants people to attend this year’s events. She understands the community’s wish for garlic festival food, and the association is trying to hold events that serve this food, she said.

Paul Nadeau is vice president of the association’s board for the Gilroy Garlic Festival. He has been involved with the festival for seven years.

“In 2017, I was asked to help out in the transportation field,” he said. “We ran a rather extensive bus schedule to get people into the festival and back out to their cars safely.”

After 2019, Nadeau found himself on the board. Today, he views the festival as a nostalgic event.

“If you grew up going to the festival, it’s one of those things where you want to go back,” he said. “I think a lot of what people miss is that atmosphere.”

Nadeau believes one of the most important messages is that the association is present in the community.

“We haven’t gone anywhere,” he said. “The festival association is alive and well and doing what it’s done best for the past 44 years: give back to the community through the love of garlic. We’re going to continue to do that, undeterred by any obstacles that come our way.”

Keira Silver is a senior at Christopher High School. She wrote this story with mentorship from publisher Marty Cheek.