The former Bulldog, Bengal, & Falcon talks KYVAN Foods & Southern tradition
(Originally published on Southern Senses 04/05/15)*
Following a successful collegiate and professional football career, Mississippi native Reggie Kelly has embarked on an entrepreneurial venture which is bringing the tradition of Southern soul food to kitchens across America. Southern Senses editor Cole Powell recently had the chance to chat with Kelly about Kelly’s Southern roots and his increasingly successful company, KYVAN Soul Food Selections.
SS: First, thanks for taking your time for this interview! It’s an honor and privilege, sir.
You’ve had a very successful stint in the NFL, so before we get into KYVAN, can you tell us a bit about your football career? I’m sure many of our readers will remember you from your time as a Mississippi State Bulldog!
RK: My name is Reggie Kelly, native of Aberdeen, Mississippi. During my time at AHS, I started out playing QB, and my senior year, I played Tight End. In 1995, I went on to play under Coach Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State University. I was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 1999, Round 2, Pick 42nd. Played 13 years—5 years with the Atlanta Falcons and 8 years with the Cincinnati Bengals.
SS: So, for years, you enjoyed a very successful football career, and now, you’re owner of your own company, KYVAN Foods, which is supplying a stellar line of products to Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Firehouse Subs, and a host of other national companies. Can you share with our readers the story of the birth of this venture? How you went from NFL tight end to food industry entrepreneur?
RK: My wife Sheila and I held football camps in our hometown of Aberdeen. The football camps were designed to reward the kids who have excelled academically in the classroom. We invited fellow NFL stars & coaches to volunteer and make the events special for the kids. True to form, after the camps, our family cooked for the volunteers, and they raved about the flavor and goodness of the meals. “Their responses were overwhelming and brought a smile to our face when they expressed their enjoyment of the meals and the difficulty of finding flavorful meals like these anywhere else. Those compliments started the ‘wheels to churn’ in our mind and a light bulb flashed, prompting my wife and I to ‘come up’ with a great idea… a Soul Food Line!”
SS: You’ve mentioned two things right there that I think are going to resonate with our readers: “Mississippi” and “Soul Food.” First, for those who don’t know, I want to mention that some of your sauces are actually produced right here in your home state of Mississippi. Now, you said people expressed “the difficulty of finding flavorful meals like these anywhere else.” I think that says a great deal about Southern cuisine. I’m not sure people from other regions really understand what an impact Southern food has on its people, so, can you expand on that a little bit? How great an impact did growing up with that “Soul Food” have on how you approached food in general and subsequently, the way you approached your product line?
RK: I didn’t come from a family of chefs but cooks. Growing up, my family always taught me to prepare our meals with love. We prepared them in such a way that first time visitors would feel welcome and feel apart of the Kelly Family. Our family recipes, and now KYVAN products, were always meant to stir your soul, and that is the reason our company is named KYVAN Soul Food Selections.
SS: Before we get into the products themselves, I want to talk a bit about the marketing for the company, which I think has been very well done. First, since we cover music on Southern Senses as well, and I’m an independent music artist myself, I have to mention the theme song that plays on the KYVAN website—I love it! The a cappella harmony, that opening bass vocal— just wonderful. “Appreciate The Goodness!” goes the refrain. “Appreciate The Goodness!” That’s KYVAN’s slogan. Fantastic slogan, by the way. Where did that phrase originate and how did you decide on that phrase to represent your brand?
RK: My wife and I were thinking about mottos that would fit the KYVAN brand and we immediately came up with “Appreciate the Goodness!” Appreciating the goodness goes far beyond just our food. Our company is built up with a team of professionals that exemplify integrity…we believe that is good. We engage in countless acts of community service…we believe this is good. Lastly our products, the quality, uniqueness of our products, exemplify goodness…and we believe this is good. Every facet of the KYVAN Brand represents, the way things are suppose to be done…with good intent.
SS: That’s such a phenomenal mindset and approach to have as a business owner, and I think that stands as a very inspiring testament to your personal character, which brings me to something else I wanted to touch on. The “About” section on the KYVAN website ends with “God Bless” and the Scripture reference John 3:16. Faith is another big part of Southern culture, and I found those unabashed references to your Christian beliefs to be refreshing. Would you like to talk a bit on your faith and the impact it has had on you and your company?
RK: Mississippi is the Bible Belt of the South, and I am true to my belief. My belief is that I believe in God and his Son, Jesus Christ. I know without Him I am nothing and I wouldn’t be where I am without Him. He is my main priority and serving and honoring Him in all that I do is a must! With God on my side I am able to do all things and I know what is meant for me is for me according to His will. Christ is a big part of my life, and I do my best to represent Him to the upmost so that others can see Him through me, based on the way I live my life. God is so good, and it is my duty to inform others of his goodness and that I am where I am today only because of Him!
SS: Thanks so much for sharing that testimony with us. Three major tenants of Southern culture are food, faith, and family. You’ve just talked a good bit on the first of those two, and the third, family, is obviously very important to you as well, as you’ve mentioned the impact your family had on you growing up, and your wife being an integral part of development of this venture. But also, as I learned while preparing for this interview, the name KYVAN itself comes from your family. Would you like to share with our readers the origin of that name and why you chose it?
RK: Family is very important me too. KYVAN is simple: it is a combination of my 2 kids names, Kyla and Kavan. Just like my kids are unique, so are our products. It’s my goal to pass down to my kids and to everyone else the gift passed down to me: An Appreciation of Good Food.
SS: Let’s get down to that “good food” and talk products. You have a great selection of items. Almost every kind of sauce one can imagine: barbecue, hot, wing, Asian. You have salsa which just won Best Hot Salsa at the Hot Pepper Awards. You have seasonings. And you have something that particularly got my mouth watering as I was browsing the KYVAN website, Honey Apple Butter. If you had to pick a favorite product, what would it be? Or would it just be too difficult a task for you to choose one over any of the others?
RK: KYVAN Mild Honey Apple Salsa, but that is a tough question. They are all Good!
SS: Great answer! You also have recipes on the KYVAN website specifically crafted to make use of KYVAN products. Which of these recipes would you personally recommend most for our readers to try at home?
KYVAN BBQ Baby Back Ribs
2 Slabs of baby back ribs
Gallon of apple cider or apple juice
KYVAN Dry BBQ Rub
KYVAN Sweet BBQ Sauce
Clean ribs and remove the thin film on bottom of ribs.
Season ribs with desired amounts of BBQ rub and then place ribs in a deep aluminum pan.
Pour apple cider over the ribs and let marinade overnight in refrigerator (covered).
Before cooking, remove from apple cider and slightly pat ribs dry.
Add more rub if desired.
Let ribs become room temperature and set grill to 250-275 degrees (charcoal grill is preferred).
Let ribs cook for 2 hrs (don’t flip ribs) and then brush BBQ sauce on ribs and let cook another 30 minutes.
Remove ribs from grill and enjoy.
SS: Okay, last KYVAN question, then I’m going to throw it back to football for just a minute to close us out. What’s in store for KYVAN in the near future?
RK: Our goal is to expand in more foodservice outlets across the country.
SS: Okay, with Super Bowl 50 still fresh on everybody’s minds, I want to ask you, as a 13-year NFL veteran, what did you think of the game overall? Any thoughts on Peyton Manning’s potential retirement?
RK: It was a great game. Peyton has had a stellar career, and what a great way to possibly end his career than with a Super Bowl win.
Reggie Kelly Official Website: http://reggiekelly82.com/
KYVAN Official Website: http://kyvan82.com/
*In 2015, Cole Powell and bandmate/wife Brittany D launched Southern Senses, an online publication dedicated to showcasing the best music and cuisine from the Southern United States. With talented site contributors (including Southern rocker J. F. Oakes and restaurateur Christa Reid Neil), the site gained immediate success, attracting the attention of renowned restaurateur Robert St. John and retired NFL tight end Reggie Kelly, among others. Though Powell opted to discontinue the site in 2017, select articles can be found on the Ramblings of a Mad Man blog section of colepowell.net.