Tradition and trends merge at San Mateo County Fair

Sophie Tjader, 5, has gotten her face painted every year since she was 2.

In the last 80 years, the San Mateo County Fair has moved beyond horse races, spinning teacup rides, flower exhibits and corn dogs — it still draws thousands of people but is trying to emphasize the area’s growing interest in technology.

This year, fair organizers launched a smartphone app that helps fair goers navigate their visit. It has a map, list of food vendors, performance times and daily pig race schedules.

The fair expanded the technology division to feature robotic demonstrations and gives the kids hands-on experience with industrial art and technical projects. They get to put gizmos together or deconstruct retired electronics while interacting and socializing with high school volunteers.

“The games and projects give an experience that is beyond riding rides,” said Gabriel Colaluca, department head of the fair’s technology division.

Even with the modern enhancements, many still prefer to engage with the old fair favorites. Jennifer Aguilera, 20, a student at College of San Mateo, said the main attraction for her is the petting zoo.

“I always wanted to be a vet and this is the one place that I get to experience being with these animals,” said Aguilera.

Maura Rosie, a handler in the fair’s livestock division, said farm animals and young livestock are main staples of a traditional county fair.

Burlingame residents Loretta Tripp and her husband used to go to fair 30 years ago with their children and recall a time when horse races were one of the main attractions at the fair.

“We used to go to the horse races after the kids were done with the rides,” said Tripp.

The race track was demolished in 2008 to make way for new housing, office and retail development.

“I remembered it used to be a little seedy, not a place I would want my children to roam around freely but now it’s more refined and there is so much more for the kids today,” said Tripp, who recently took her grandchildren.

Fair organizers said it is their mission to maintain tradition but also push the genre to keep the new generation engaged. You don’t want to take away the petting zoos or the pig race, but you can add technology, said organizers.

Fair organizers said they have to reinvent themselves constantly because consumer demands are changing so quickly.

To keep up with healthy trends, the fair held their first Agri-Tourism exhibit which features five local farms and a class on how to cook vegetables that grow locally in San Mateo County.

There are educational booths funded by the USDA to promote healthy eating and every food vendor at the fair now offers at least one healthy food option that is approved by the San Mateo department of public health.

San Mateo native, Brian Birkett, 36, said although the gesture is appreciated, he prefers to indulge in traditional fair foods such as fried Twinkies, barbecued ribs and corn on the cob with melted butter.

“You go and you have a little treat and that treat takes you back to what it was like going to the fair 20 years ago,” said Birkett.

It is the intent to maintain popular traditions yet always stay ahead of the curve, said Fair Manager Matt Cranford. As the county fair evolves, there will be new attractions tailored for the generation it serves. Freak Out, a new ride that flies passengers more than 40 feet in the air, grilled tofu dogs, technology exhibits and a smartphone app are the newest trends among time honored traditions like pony rides, funnel cakes and Ferris wheels.

Every year, San Mateo resident Robert Tjader and his wife take their 5-year-old daughter Adrian to the fair for a traditional pony ride, carousal ride and face paint.

“Adrian was on the some horse that she rode last year, it was named Sydney,” said Tjader.

For Tjader, the memories his family creates and the sense of community is what draws him to the fair each year.

“I think coming to the fair is good for the community and good for our family to get out and about,” said Tjader, “but you will not be seeing me eat a grilled tofu dog unless I’m in a dire situation.”

The San Mateo County fair operates from June 7 to 14. For more tickets or more information go to

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