Covering a wall of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s Food and Environmental Services office is an oversized list of Fiesta events, each followed by the names of sanitarians assigned to inspect the events’ food stands for cleanliness and safe food handling practices.
Hundreds of vendors selling chicken on a stick, gorditas, and other Fiesta fare will line streets, sidewalks, and park grounds throughout the city during the 10 days of Fiesta. Before the opening of each event, Metro Health’s team of inspectors checks every vendor booth to make sure no health or safety hazards are present.
On Friday, five sanitarians will inspect the 90 food and beverage booths set to occupy the grounds of St. Mary’s University for Oyster Bake, which claims to sell more than 32,000 orders of chicken on a stick during the two-day music festival and carnival.
Metro Health Sanitation Manager Jerry Trevino said that while inspectors often work weekends when special events are happening, “nothing is like Fiesta.”
“Just the sheer number of events taking place, and the fact that they are all over town, makes it something we have to think about well in advance to divide up the work,” he said.
Sanitarians check each food and drink provider to ensure there is a hand-washing station, utensil-washing station, covered cold and hot food storage, overhead protection, and areas to dispose of trash and other waste. The most complicated event to inspect is the Battle of the Flowers Parade, Trevino said.
“It’s so long and drawn out, and as an inspector, you’re walking the route in the heat for a long time, making sure you check off each vendor assigned to you,” Trevino said, noting at least 14 employees will make inspections along the parade route.
Once Metro Health inspects the temporary food booths, it’s up to event coordinators to ensure the safety and cleanliness of vendors as they mass-produce shucked oysters, tacos, fried mushrooms, and churros for the duration of the festivities. Event organizers assume responsibility when they apply for temporary food establishment permits from the City in bulk and divide them among individual vendors.
The King William Fair will have 67 vendors spread throughout the neighborhood streets just South of downtown. Noah Peterson, entertainment and vendor coordinator with the King William Fair, said the event controls for food safety and sanitation, in part, by working with seasoned Fiesta vendors.
“We are looking for people who have been doing this for at least five to 10 years because they typically aren’t going to have any issues,” he said. “It really takes a special kind of vendor because of all that’s going on throughout the event. When you have 67 vendors coming into a residential street for a fair, you need people who can show up to their space on time, not be a problem, be nice, and quickly clean up and get out.”
Peterson vets all vendor applications for the King William Fair, making sure to choose a menu that will please foodies, as well as those seeking “must haves,” which he says includes nachos, funnel cakes, and mangonadas.
During the King William Fair, 40 people working as food tasters are tasked with reviewing the food and drink stations to report back about the quality of the food, cleanliness of booth and surrounding area, and interactions with food vendors, which are later used to determine whether the vendor will be invited back the following year, Peterson said.
“Usually people who want to work a Fiesta event know what they are getting themselves into, so they tend to be easy to work with, and just want to show up, do a good job, and have a good time.”
Trevino echoed this sentiment, noting that any big event happening in San Antonio during Fiesta “has it down” because they have been planning, organizing, and executing the event for so long.
“We really never run into any problems during the inspections,” he said. “There hasn’t been a food-borne illness outbreak during Fiesta in at least the last 19 years I have been with the department, and we work to keep it that way.”