It’s not exactly the fair, but HomeGrownFun aims to draw crowds to Del Mar this summer
A smaller version of the event — with food booths, exhibits, a couple rides and entertainment — opens Friday
San Diego residents will have to live without a county fair for the second year in a row this summer. But a much smaller event that celebrates some of the fair’s most popular features — namely deep-fried Oreos, gadget hawkers and piglet races — will open for a three-week run Friday at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Pandemic-related uncertainties over the past eight months led the 22nd Agricultural District, which runs the fairgrounds, to cancel this year’s San Diego County Fair. In its place, the district is hosting HomeGrownFun, a scaled-down event that can accommodate up to 13,000 visitors a day, compared to the usual 50,000 to 75,000 a day the fair attracts during a regular summer run.
HomeGrownFun will take up a much smaller footprint at the fairgrounds than the fair. There will be no midway games or fun zone, no full-size garden show, no livestock or pet exhibitions, no grandstand concerts, no beer garden and no art, woodworking or collectibles shows.
But there will be more than 280 vendors selling their wares in the Bing Crosby and other exhibit halls, nearly 40 food booths, a carousel and Ferris wheel, pony rides, a model train and garden walk, a family-friendly “Agri-Land” exhibit with cow-milking demonstrations and child-size toy tractors, a variety of local entertainment and a closing-day fireworks show on July 4.
“This is a smaller event in both size and attendance but it’s one step toward getting back to that traditional fair, which is our main goal next year,” said fair spokeswoman Ashley Colburn.
Jennifer Hellman, marketing director for the fairgrounds, said HomeGrownFun was created to give local residents a “taste” of the fair as the county finally emerges from the long and difficult pandemic.
“The fair is San Diego’s longest-standing event,” Hellman said. “Since it began way back in 1880, it has only paused during the Depression, World War II, and of course most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. The San Diego County Fair will come back. It remains a family tradition shared over generations and continues to remain relevant as a celebration of local art, talent and business.”
District officials are forecasting HomeGrownFun will raise about $5.65 million in revenues during its 18-day run. That compares to the $47 million in revenues the 26-day fair grossed in 2019. Each year, income from the fair covers more than half of the district’s annual budget. The income from tickets, parking and vendor sales is critical to fairgrounds operations, as the district doesn’t receive any money from property, gas or sales tax revenues.
To stem the flow of red ink last year, the district was forced to reduce its regular and seasonal staffing by 85 percent. Hellman said HomeGrownFun will employ about 360 seasonal workers, compared to nearly 2,000 for the 2019 fair.
In past years, the district’s annual budget — based on income from the fair, horse racing and other events year-round — has been around $87 million. The projected budget for fiscal 2021 is around $39 million, Hellman said.
One bright spot on the horizon for the district this fall is the return of one of the horse-racing industry’s biggest events, The Breeder’s Cup, a series of high-stakes races last presented in Del Mar four years ago. The district will receive $400,000 in rent from this year’s Breeder’s Cup events on Nov. 5 and 6, as well as revenue from food and beverage sales. In 2017, those F&B sales were $3.3 million, Hellman said.
Although there wasn’t a fair in 2020, the public was able to get their annual fair food fix when the district hosted a months-long drive-through food booth event at the fairgrounds last summer. Many of these food booth operators are local families who rely almost exclusively on income from fairs in San Diego and other California cities, which were all canceled last year. Hellman said last year’s drive-through food event was a big hit, netting the district $344,000 in income.
For many fair visitors, trying out as many food items as possible is a major part of their annual visit. HomeGrownFun will feature many of the usual vendors, including Bacon A Fair, Australian Battered Potatoes, Roxy’s, Wood Pit BBQ and Bob’s Corn.
But no summer event would be complete without Chicken Charlie’s, the mammoth food booth run by San Diego’s Charlie Boghosian, who has been selling deep-fried desserts and other wildly indulgent food items at the fair since the early 1990s.
“I’m so excited to be back I’m doing cartwheels inside my head,” said Boghosian. “There’s nothing more beautiful to me than being at the fair. To come back home and have the smells, the sounds, the sights and all the people, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
For HomeGrownFun, Boghosian has hired 120 workers to staff the Chicken Charlie’s booth in Del Mar this year. That’s less than a third of the 380 people he hired in 2019. Last year, he made up a little bit of his losses at the drive-through event at the fairgrounds and in a booth set up at the Grossmont Center mall parking lot. But he’s certain this year’s return to Del Mar — followed by a monthlong run at the OC Fair in Costa Mesa — will turn his fortunes around.
Chicken Charlie’s is locally famous for introducing new items every year, which Boghosian said is a project he works on all year long.
“It’s not so easy to outdo what I created the year before. I have to keep it exciting. It can’t be something stupid. It has to taste good and have a feel of the weird and wacky,” he said.
Past successes have included his all-time bestseller, deep-fried Oreo cookies, as well as triple-decker Krispy-Kreme burger, cotton candy ice cream sandwich, deep-fried cookie dough, bacon-wrapped pickles and Maui chicken in a pineapple bowl. All of those will be back this year, but he’s got many new items up his sleeve, including ice cream nachos, which he predicts will be this summer’s biggest hit.
Also new at Chicken Charlie’s this year will be the buffalo chicken mac ‘n’ cheese waffle cone, lobster slipper tail meat with fries, chicken lumpia with vanilla ice cream and, finally, fried buffalo brownies with vanilla ice cream, which Boghosian said “is so good that when I took the first bite my brain stopped working.”
In order to produce a 2021 grandstand concert season, the district would have had to book those acts last winter, when the pandemic was at its deadliest. Instead, Colburn said HomeGrownFun will feature a slate of San Diego-area entertainers performing daily on the Paddock and other stages.
Highlighting the four-legged entertainment is the ever-popular Swifty Swine Racing Pigs, who will run around a small hay-lined track six times a day for the prize of an Oreo cookie. Extreme Dogs, a troupe of rescue dogs trained to do high-flying extreme stunts, will perform four times a day. Also booked are daily magic, juggling and bird shows, as well as performances by the Jackstraws Surf Band and Juice Box soul/funk/jazz band.
The Homegrown Music Series, featuring all San Diego-area musicians and singers, will take place every day at the fairgrounds’ west gate. Among these solo and small group acts are Bob Wade, Bill Shreeve, Clay Colton, Tom Griesgraber, Joe Rathburn, Ben Owens, Dano’s Island, Art Deco, Jerry Gontang, Davy Rockett and Nico Hueso.
Although the public won’t get to see this year’s livestock show, the poultry, swine, goats, lambs and steers raised by local teens in 4H, FFA and other agricultural programs will be judged at the fairgrounds and sold in an online auction. Colburn encouraged the public to tune into the auction and make bids to support the teen farmers at sdfair.com/2021-jla/.
HomeGrownFun will kick off four days before the state’s “Beyond the Blueprint” reduction in COVID-19 restrictions begins June 15. During those first few days, capacity and other restrictions will be a bit tighter under existing state guidelines. Because these rules change frequently based on COVID-19 case numbers, Colburn said ticket-buyers should check the latest safety requirements on the event website at sdfair.com/faqs/ before they arrive at the fairgrounds.
For the length of HomeGrownFun, face coverings will be required for all guests, ages 2 and up. People refusing to comply with the face mask ordinance may be asked to leave. Temperature screenings will also be conducted at entry. Visitors must purchase their tickets and parking online in advance for arrival during select time windows to avoid daily overcrowding. Cashless payments will also be required in most places.
Because the fairgrounds’ main parking lot is still being used for no-appointment drive-through vaccines, HomeGrownFun visitors will be required to enter the property at two other locations. Parking passes, priced at $12, will be sold online to both the green Solana Gate on Via de la Valle and the yellow Stable Gate on Jimmy Durante Boulevard.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, June 11 through July 4
Where: Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar
Tickets: $10; children 5 and under are free (tickets are sold for reserved times)
Parking: Prepaid parking is $12 at the Solana and Stable gates.
Phone: (858) 755-1161
Online ticket sales: sdfair.com
—Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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