Former Atlanta Falcon starts line of soul food products

Growing up in a family of cooks who shared biscuits and pancakes spread with homemade apple butter, and who watched football games surrounded by salsas and barbeque sauces, Reggie Kelly didn’t realize the quality of that food until non-Southerners tasted it.

A 13-year veteran of the National Football League who played for the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the Lawrenceville resident and his wife, Sheila, opened a food product line in 2011 made up of those sauces and spreads they grew up with as high school sweethearts in Aberdeen, Miss.

“We don’t come from a line of chefs, we just come from a line of cooks,” Kelly said. “Any opportunity we have to fire up the grill and cook a big meal so the family can come together and gather; We always welcome that opportunity. It makes for great stories and great fellowship times. I think that’s why our families are so close and we enjoy spending time with our families, and you can’t spend time unless you have food in the mix.”

The idea was born after NFL teammates and volunteers raved about the recipes following football camps Kelly put on in Mississippi. The “down South” flavor the Kellys were so familiar with was popular and marketable.

“My teammates kept insisting, ‘You guys really need to do something with this,’” Kelly said. “We’ve been used to it all of our lives. But when you have outsiders coming in and tasting the goodness of our products or what our recipes have to offer, then we feel like we were on to something really golden. We wanted them to experience what we’ve been experiencing our entire lives.”

So the Kellys found the secret family recipes and listened to his grandmother’s advice.

“‘Baby, when you cook, make sure you do it with love,’” Kelly recalled her saying. “‘Make sure you cook in a way that first-time visitors will feel at home, feel a part of the family.’ We think that’s what people are getting when they taste our products. Their souls are touched, and they feel a part of the family.”

That family tradition has evolved into a goal to leave a family legacy. That’s why the Kellys named their brand KYVAN, a combination of their children’s names: Kyla, 9, and Kavan, 7.

“So you can rest assured that since my kids’ names are on these labels, that they’re going to be full of flavor, full of quality and just like my kids: very unique,” Kelly said.

The name the couple settled on came after other ideas, such as “Kelly’s” or “82,” his jersey number in the NFL, were ditched because they’re too common.

The company received a breakthrough in growth and sales only months into its operation when Kelly, without a marketing or financial person working with the company, sold to Walmart, which agreed to sell two of the products.

“They wanted to take a chance on the product,” Kelly said. “Once you get in Walmart, everybody wants to take a chance because if you’re in Walmart stores, that speaks volumes to the type of product you have.”

Walmart sells the products across the Southeast, and Kelly said they recently signed agreements with grocery store chain Piggly Wiggly, and with Supervalu, an independent grocery distributor that will put the products in more stores across the Southeast.

The flavors include “Hot Honey Apple Salsa,” “Sweet BBQ sauce,” “Jambalaya sauce,” “Honey Apple Butter” and “Original Hot Sauce” among the eight products currently on sale out of a possible 30 and beyond that are in the pipeline. Products not in stores are available at kyvan82.com.

“You can tell the progress of a company by other products that are being added to the brand,” Kelly said.

About a year and a half into the food product business, Kelly brought in other professionals to help grow the company in marketing, finances and distribution.

Despite all of his post-football success, Kelly said it still doesn’t compare to the feeling of catching a touchdown pass or winning a championship. The reality television, entertainment and high-level competition nature that makes the NFL so popular puts it in a class by itself.

“It’s hard to compare any other line of business with the National Football League,” he said. “It doesn’t compare in that regard, but still, it is quite refreshing and quite fulfilling when you can take a family recipe legacy that has been left behind from generation to generation and actually make people enjoy it, give people great comfort, because people are comforted by great food.”