Treated to a beautiful San Diego summer day, thousands of people flocked to OB to take part in the 30th incarnation of the Ocean Beach Street Fair and Chili Cook-Off Festival . Not only was the event a shot in the arm for local businesses and for OB as a whole, but the music was fantastic, the event ran smoothly, and the vibe was electric (at least for OB standards). Everyone in our community takes pride in this event, from the organizers (OBMA and the many volunteers) to the drunken buffoons using their friends as a crutch to keep them from falling face first into the ground. If anything can be said of this year’s event, it is that the expectations for next year’s event are going to be hard to match.
As for the vendors, the very people who make this fair the bustling event that it is, it was obvious even before the crowds started showing up around 2:00pm who was going to have a good day. The tri-tips sandwich crew had long lines starting somewhere around 11:30am, so I didn’t even have a chance to ask them who they are, what their secret is, and why their sandwiches were so popular. As someone who does not eat meat, I obviously wasn’t able to try it for myself. But upon asking a passerby who had just purchased one, I was able to gather between chews and barely distinguishable comments (as the guy was really stuffing his face) that the sandwiches are just damn good. When people are lining up to grab a beef sandwich before lunchtime, you know sales are going to be brisk. This was actually indicative of the street fair as a whole. Some vendors seemed to complain that people weren’t spending money, but from being amidst all the hustle and bustle, one could tell this wasn’t true. The crowds sure do have their favorites, recession or not.
The fan favorites seemed to be fairly obvious. There were of course your common street festival foods – funnel cake, lemonade, Chinese meat on a stick, Greek foods, bratwurst, etc. – but to me, and to some other fairgoers, it seemed like maybe there was too much duplication and not enough food diversity – particularly vegetarian options. Says Michelle Gadot, a first-time attendee, OB resident, and vegetarian: “I wish there were a couple more vegetarian options. All you really have to choose from is falafel, tamale, or funnel cake. I am glad there is a raw foods booth, but that’s not exactly what I would consider street fair food. What about some of these places doing a vegetable kabob or veggie burgers? I don’t think it would really hurt them to at least have the option.”
Michelle brings up a good point: it certainly seemed as if there were a lot of the same things being offered, vegetarian or not. So if you aren’t in the mood for a bratwurst, tamale, or gyro, you are most likely going to be disappointed by the offerings. Even OB’s own burrito joint, Liticker’s, had a very limited menu and wasn’t making their soyrizo burrito – a favorite of OB vegetarians. I guess there is something to be said about the traditions of a street fair and the types of foods that are generally offered, but at an event as large as this one that draws people from all over San Diego it was interesting to note the lack of food diversity.
In many ways, that lack of food diversity benefited some more than others. There was a long line snaking down the street of people waiting to get a Hodad’s burger, and equally long waits at South Beach and Newport Pizza. As the lines grew longer at the more popular vendor booth, this seemed to be a more and more common occurrence at every other restaurant on the street. I guess the more time people spent in the sun, the less they wanted a tri-tip sandwich or a bratwurst. When people started opting to visit one of the fine establishments on Newport Avenue rather than indulge in street foods, it put a spotlight on these restaurants and gave Newport’s many businesses some much needed publicity. I guess when you consider that OBMA puts on the whole thing, it goes without saying that exposure for OB businesses is a welcome outcome.
TJ, who was manning the Peace Pies raw foods booth, admitted that it probably helped his business for the day. Peace Pies is a regular at farmers’ markets around San Diego, including the OB farmers’ market on Wednesdays, and recently opened a storefront on Voltaire Street. I have always loved their raw foods, particularly the mock tuna wrap – which is what I ended up eating for lunch.
“Our business is kind of scraping by right now, so I was hoping to do well today. I guess it sucks that there aren’t too many vegetarian options, but it is great for us. Not only are we going to do well, but people are eating healthy.”
One vendor, who had yet to sell much of anything by 3:00pm and will remain anonymous, was not happy with the way things were going.
“We normally sell kettle corn, but because three vendors had already been confirmed to sell it, we were told we couldn’t do it. I understand you don’t want to have too many of the same things, but I don’t think we signed up late or anything – I just think some people have a foot in the door right from the beginning. Also, the crowds seem to be much bigger down below Cable Street, and up here there is very little foot traffic. I don’t know if we’ll be doing this one again.”
Of course, this vendor was right. There was definitely more traffic between the pier and Cable Street, and seemingly much less action between Cable and Sunset Cliffs. I guess location is everything when selling a specific product or food, and for this event the closer a vendor was to the beach, the better their sales would be.
What would an OB event be without some quirky booths? One interesting product being hawked from a booth on Abbot Street across from the Chili Cook-off area was leather gun holster-style beverage holders. While not specifically based in OB, the company that sells them, BeerOutlaw.com, is based in San Diego and the product seems to do really well as a kitschy, niche market gift item. Had the booze ban not been passed, you would surely see plenty of people walking around the beach with a beer or other adult beverage ready to be drawn on a moment’s notice. Dave Brecht, the owner of the company, offers customizable buckles that can be attached to the front of the holster – and was quick to point out the many he had brought to sell that had “OB” emblazoned across the front. I don’t know how sales were for the day, but they sure seemed to have fun selling the product.
Similarly, the guys hawking Belligerent Active Drinking Gear seemed to be getting lots of attention. Morgan, who lives in San Diego and calls himself an “avid drinker”, utilized a bullhorn to harass and threaten passersby who didn’t take notice of their booth selling satirical gift items targeted at bar hoppers and night-clubbers. Again, I don’t know how sales were, but these guys seemed to be having a hell of a time.
As Morgan said, “This is just a hobby, but we do events like this in California, Vegas, Arizona. Sometimes we make some money but mostly we just have fun doing it. I think some of the families are a little upset at some of the crude remarks we’ve been making, but I can’t worry about that.”
Personally, I think they were pretty funny. Anytime people have that much gusto, they fit in pretty well in OB – regardless of what the offended parents or church groups in the surrounding booths seemed to think.
Community oriented booths were very visible at the fair, as would be expected in OB. Some notable groups represented were the OB Town Council, the OB Historical Society, and obviously the OBMA. While walking around I happened to stumble upon two friends of mine, Luke Sponsler and Khristopher Tabaknek, who both work with the OB Community Development Corporation (OBCDC) and were volunteering their Saturday to educate OBecians about what the CDC does and how far along the Ocean Beach Entryway Project has come. Luke, who had been at the chili cook-off earlier as part of “Team Hettiwanda”, seemed surprised at how interested people have become recently, due to the signage detailing the Gateway Project that was recently erected in the project’s target area.
“People keep walking up to us and saying ‘oh, that’s the sign at the traffic light over there on Sunset Cliffs and Nimitz. Yeah, what is that about anyway?’ Having a booth here is definitely a great way to educate people on the project and give them a better idea of what the OBCDC, how the OBCDC has worked to help OBecians in the past, and how they can get involved. I would love to be taking part in all the shenanigans down the street, but giving a few hours of my time to educate people about the OBCDC is important for the growth of the community and the CDC.”
As in many years past, Uncle Mikey and Deborah Henderson were in attendance representing the OB Geriatric Surf Club, selling t-shirts and other items to support their organization. Known for their highly energetic public activities, such as the drill team they put together for the OB Christmas Parade, Deborah- aka Skates – explained what their fundraising efforts have paid for in the past.
“We just take a look at the community, and find a couple folks that could really use our help. Usually its some kind of word of mouth thing, where we hear about a family that’s struggling here in OB and we do what we can to raise some money and help them out. Most recently we helped a young guy who was paralyzed from a surfing accident. The money we raised helped get him the electric wheelchair and the modified van that he needs to get around. Yeah, we have a lot of fun for a bunch of old surfers – I’m usually riding around on roller skates acting ridiculous – but we also help people. So that’s where all the money goes.”
As I walked down the street, scribbled some notes in my notepad, and put on my party hat, I couldn’t help but think of how unique the OB Street Festival really is. When you attend expecting to get drunk, listen to music, and have a good time, it is very easy to overlook all the people that make the scene what it is. Obviously, those who organize this event have it down to a science, and the OBMA should be commended for running such a clean, tight ship. In the end, however, it is the vendors and the connections they make to the attendees who give the street festival its distinctly “OB” vibe. At a time when many people are struggling to get by, there was definitely a lot of people spending money that they probably don’t have. By providing an atmosphere where people can feel comfortable enough to forget about their troubles, the event is bound to be a success. Whether or not every vendor goes home with a profit, at least they can say they were a part of something bigger than dollars and cents. As people in OB have been saying for the last thirty years, there’s always next year.