Keel & Curley sweet on Blueberry Festival’s winning formula

Vendors sell everything from blueberry wine to blueberry shortcake to blueberry sauces and more at the annual Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival at Keel and Curley winery near Plant City.
 | Times Files
Vendors sell everything from blueberry wine to blueberry shortcake to blueberry sauces and more at the annual Tampa Bay Blueberry Festival at Keel and Curley winery near Plant City. | Times Files
Published April 10
Updated April 21

PLANT CITY ó Keel & Curry Winery founder Joe Keel has been running the businessís annual Blueberry Festival for years under the adage, "If it ainít broke, donít fix it."

Now in its 11th year, the festival kicks off Saturday and Sunday and continues April 21 and 22 with the same winning formula itís used for years. The free festival will feature live entertainment, food and craft vendors, a kidsí zone, an opportunity to pick your own blueberries, $10 blueberry wines and visits to the wineryís craft brewery and cidery.

And it all works.

"Itís been a success all these years," Keel said. "Weíve grown to the point where 1,200 attended the first year and this year we expect well over 20,000 to attend."

Visitors who attend the festival each year are usually looking for an escape from city life with their children, he said.

"The main draw for our festival is the family atmosphere," Keel said. "People come with their families and they pick blueberries and have 70 vendors to choose from."

The owner recommends anyone wishing to attend the festival to arrive early on the final two days. The wineryís employees block off acres of fields to guarantee thereís plenty of blueberries to pick, but by the festivalís end thereís not a lot of fruit left on the bushes.

"We usually run out of blueberries by Sunday, sometimes by early Sunday," Keel said.

Jake Austin, executive director of The Plant City Economic Development Corp., said each year the festival helps boost the cityís coffers through tourism dollars.

"While itís not quite as big as the strawberry festival, it accomplishes the same thing by bringing in new folks, new people to Plant City that have never been here before that stay in our hotels and eat at our restaurants," he said.

The festival draws in not only locals but out-of-state patrons, Austin said, who enjoy traveling the country to attend agricultural-based festivals.

Spread across more than 35 acres, the 15-year-old winery and its craft beer business Two Henrys Brewing Company, remains on the market after being put up for sale last year, with the latest listing price being $6.9 million.

"Weíre not beating down the door looking for someone, but if someone were to come along and say Iíll pay you this amount of money, I would certainly entertain the offer," he said.

The 64-year-old Keel, a blueberry farmer, started the business in 2003 as a way to use what was left of his end-of-year crops. The winery began by producing 10 gallons of blueberry wine. Now, it produces 20,000 gallons of wine each year, with three varieties to choose from: sweet, semi-sweet and dry. Patrons also have seven types of fusion wines Ė a blend of grape wine and fruit juice Ė to choose from at the winery.

Contact Crystal Owens at [email protected]

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