Thousands of cowboy hats line the shelves inside a warehouse on (appropriately) Texas Avenue.
Gone Country Hats is a company owned by Keith and Judy Kowatch. The Kowatches live in the Lawsona/ Fern Creek neighborhood of downtown Orlando. They set up tents at country music festivals and concerts across the country to sell hats, T-shirts and belts. There’s no Gone Country store – unless you count the warehouse. Customers can call the number on the website and pick a hat up at the warehouse by appointment.
“We don’t have a brick and mortar store. We’re strictly mobile,” Judy said. “Our four teams are our four stores. We do sell retail out of our warehouse here by appointment because we’re not here all the time. So, if somebody wants to come in here, all they have to do is call and generally with a couple hours’ notice, we’ll meet somebody down here, seven days a week.”
Three couples (The Kowatches are the fourth) travel in RVs from festival to festival to set up tents to sell their products.
“They’re full-time RVers, so they are wherever they park,” Keith said. “Wherever the event is.”
Judy is a central Florida native. She grew up in Winter Haven, Florida and graduated from Edgewater High School. Keith is from Culver, Indiana. Gone Country has been around for 16 years, but the Kowatches have been together much longer. They’ll be celebrating their 28th anniversary this year.
“A friend of ours met Keith at a networking function, and she decided that we were for each other,” Judy said. “So she managed to get us both together at the networking function at the same time. And she was right. We’ve been together for almost 28 years.”
The hats are manufactured in Mexico, shipped to the warehouse in Orlando for storage and sold at music festivals and concerts across the country. Keith designs and oversees production of the hats in San Francisco Del Rincón, Mexico.
“The logistical issues are really getting hats from point A to point B on time, which is one of the reasons that we actually started designing the hats ourselves,” Keith said. “When I first started going to Mexico, I knew three words of Spanish. Two of them I care not to tell you, but most of the people down there that I work with also speak English, so it’s a little easier.”
This May, the Kowatches will fill their white Dodge Ram 5500 and travel to the Midwest to attend a series of concerts and events.
“We look for country music festivals where they’re camping and they’re here for the party for several days,” Judy said. “A lot of those are in the Midwest, so when Keith and I leave here in May we’ll head to the Midwest. We spend all summer in Wisconsin and Minnesota and there are very big events there that we do every year.”
16 years in business is a testament to their success. The Kowatches cite friendly customer service as their secret to prolonged business. They said one of the main reasons people are turned off from buying a product is pushy salespeople.
“We don’t sell. We’re really not salespeople,” Judy said. “When somebody comes in our store, we want to ask them what’s important to them. And based on their answer, we’ll show them a hat that meets their needs.”
They haven’t always liked country music. Getting into the cowboy hat business submerged them in the culture and music, and they learned to enjoy it.
“We didn’t start out listening to country music,” Keith said. “We’re converts. But country music is just part of the theme, and what we do is we sell the costume of the day while we’re at those events.”