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Keel Farms winery planting hope and inspiration while adapting to COVID-19

Clay Keel, President of Keel Farms in Plant City.
Posted at 11:32 AM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2021-03-03 05:12:56-05

PLANT CITY, Fla. — Keel Farms in Plant City is a winery, brewery, and a restaurant all in one. During lockdowns, ambassadors sold wine on the streets, held virtual tastings, and ramped up their wine production.

The farm's actions helped stave off the fallout from COVID-19 and help get them in a better position today than in March.

"We've learned a lot about what's possible," President of Keel Farms, Clay Keel said. "I think a lot of companies you just have to be really flexible, We have an amazing team here, and everybody is using their energy and their creativity to figure out ways to bring in cash flow."

Founded by his father in 1980, Keel recently took over the family business with one goal in mind. Make the best wine in the area and have the best restaurant and event center for people to enjoy the landscape's beauty.

The farm has live music, trivia nights, outdoor yoga, and special events from weddings to everything in between. In March, their business model didn't change; it was put on hold.

"Those all got shut down," Keel said. "We had a lot of refunds for people that had weddings booked, so it was a little scary at first. The worst part about the whole thing is I came out here on a Friday evening, and you know, basically told our 25 at the time retail employees that 'hey you know we are not going to be open for at least 6 to 8 weeks' and that was really tough."

The farm employs 40 people full time and up to 100 total, including part-time workers during the busy season. When Keel was brainstorming a way to keep money coming in, something happened he never expected.

"We sell a lot of wine to Publix, and that really took off, which really helped us out," Keel said.

Keel realized with bars closed, a lot more people were drinking wine at home. So he got blueberries that weren't going to market and used them to make even more wine.

"But, at the end of the day, you have to move bottles off the shelf, and the COVID shutdown really helped do that. People were buying wine to drink at home. Publix saw those numbers and how well we were doing, and yeah, we've expanded into almost every Publix in the state, which is almost 800. We were averaging around 400. We almost doubled the distribution today than we were a year ago across the state of Florida."

Keel credits local companies like Publix for their continued support, and he supports local as well.

"Agriculture in Florida has a lot of challenges, and people are just looking for a true, authentic product," Keel said. "We use 100% Florida blueberries in our wine. We've been doing it for almost 20 years."

Touring the wine takes you back in time. The rows of field and cool Florida Fall breeze gives you an immediate connection with nature you don't get in the big city. And the best part, nearly all of their space is outdoors.

Keel, an Army reservist, was activated during the lockdown. His mission set up field hospitals across the country to help handle the influx of COVID patients. To say the husband and father of two is busy is an understatement. While serving his country, he ran the farm remotely, kept up with the day-to-day problems, and never lost sight of what was important.

"This is definitely one of the most difficult times we've faced," Keel said.

Recently, social media has been a primary driver for people coming to the farm. They are so busy on weekends there's almost always an hour-long wait at the restaurant.

"I love wine in general, but this is probably the best wine I've ever had. It's so good," Meagan Gerber, a student at the University of Tampa, said.

Gerber learned about Keel Farms from a friend who posted her experience on social media. She said it made her want to support local.

"I think during the pandemic especially, there are so many small businesses that are taking a hit," Gerber said. "So, I definitely hope we are making a difference for them."