Specialty grower wins fans across state, country

Kathy Keylor, left, specialty grower entrepreneur, chats with visitors during the recent Illinois Specialty Crop Conference in Springfield. Through Kathy’s Kitchen, Keylor processes and sells about 100 products ranging from pickles, jams, jellies, fruit butters and salsas across the state and the country. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Cass County farmer Kathy Keylor reaches pickled beet converts as far as Florida and Arizona from her Virginia farm. Her success story started in the Illinois State Fair’s culinary contest.

Capturing blue ribbons for sweet pickles and pickled beets launched Kathy’s Kitchen. “That’s all it took for me to get hooked,” Keylor said with a chuckle.

Today, Kathy’s Kitchen produces and sells about 100 food products. With help from husband, Daryl, and daughter, Paula, Keylor raises cucumbers, bell peppers and asparagus on 10 acres. “Everything goes back into the jar,” she stressed.

But her value-added reach extends beyond Cass County. She buys and processes pumpkins from a Mason County farmer and apples from Apple Barn Orchard in Sangamon County and Liberty Apple Orchard in Madison County.

Keylor, a Cass-Morgan Farm Bureau member, also operates as a small-scale cold packer and makes barbecue sauces for one business based in Clinton and another in Jacksonville.

“Kathy’s Kitchen is a prime example of a thriving, diversified small business that has far-reaching impact, from rural Cass County to regions throughout Illinois and the country,” Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton told FarmWeek. “I have loved traveling to communities in every region of our state, visiting small businesses and farms. I’ve seen firsthand how agriculture connects us all, through food that we share with loved ones, to all the various components that make up the supply chain.”

Steve Miller, co-owner of Apple Liberty Orchard, said his family appreciates its working relationship with Keylor, whose apple butter “has a very distinct apple taste.” Miller, a Madison County Farm Bureau member, noted Keylor also produces other products from his family’s apples.

But it’s Keylor’s pickled beets that satisfy taste buds nearly from coast to coast.

A north-central Illinois food distributor annually sells 800 to 900 cases of Kathy’s Kitchen pickled beets to stores and farmers’ market clients as far as Florida, Arizona, Michigan and Ohio, as well as Illinois. Even Keylor admitted, “That’s a lot of pickled beets.”

“People who don’t even like beets, I tell them to try ‘em and eat ‘em, and that’s all it takes. She does such a quality job. It’s like eating homemade,” said the farmer/distributor, who declined to give his name for business proprietary reasons.

While Keylor processes many Illinois-grown fruits and vegetables, she must buy some produce, such as Vidalia onions, from other states.

Since 1994, Keylor stayed current with consumers’ changing tastes, adding new products to meet customers’ demands. “People were always asking for salsa so we developed three flavors,” she said. Customers continued asking for different new salsas, including peach and raspberry. Kathy’s Kitchen obliged.

“You have to change to what people want,” Keylor said.

Her north-central distributor praised Keylor’s business acumen as well as her culinary talent: “Kathy is a great example of what a person can do with a small business and a creative mind. And it’s all done in small batches. There’s no mass production. That’s how she maintains her quality.”

Keylor sells her jam, jelly, pickled and salsa products under her own label, while other products she makes are sold under private label. She sells online at KathysKitchenStore.com and became one of the first existing online businesses to link to Food MarketMaker’s new e-commerce pilot project.

Lt. Gov. Stratton highlighted the value of broadband and e-commerce to small businesses.

“Statewide initiatives like Connect Illinois, which allocates $420 million to broadband expansion, will help allow other small businesses to participate in e-commerce, positively impacting their families and communities,” she said.