A little bit of spice with sweet that’s nice, Oregon-based award-winning Kelly’s Jelly will easily convince you that their pepper jellies and preserves offer “the perfect complement.” When one considers their depth of inspired flavor and versatility, it is no wonder why these products elevate a range of savory and sweet dishes from roasted chicken to BLTs to cheese boards to . . . Voodoo Doughnut!
Owner Kelly Calabria shared how Portland’s (in)famously zany doughnut slingers incorporated spicy jelly into their routine. “After my husband Adam and I started Kelly’s Jelly in 2010, I hired a karaoke band for our Christmas party.” (Employee Hilary Smith chimed in, “Kelly has a thing for karaoke!”) Kelly continued, “This band, Karaoke from Hell, handles the music and makes you the lead singer. It’s so much fun. The band is led by Tres, who co-owns Voodoo Doughnut. At the party, I mentioned to him the possibility of a spicy jelly doughnut incorporating our Habanero Pepper Jelly. The next thing I knew, I was driving 3 quarts of jelly to their bakers. It took a few rounds before we got to try them out because they sold out so quickly! For the next 6 years, they were offered every Thursday at Voodoo. The doughnuts were so popular that they asked us about another flavor and we landed on Strawberry Habanero. We’d never made it before, so we just jumped in, and Voodoo became like our test kitchen.”
“We have our staples at Kelly’s Jelly, but it’s been really fun to step out creatively after seeing how well it worked at Voodoo. With that confidence we feel freer to experiment with seasonal flavors like beer jelly for St. Pat’s and margarita jelly for Cinco de Mayo.”
Aside from making fans at Voodoo Doughnuts, another early boon was winning a 2010 Scovie Award from the annual spicy food competition based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for their Habanero Pepper Jelly.
Kelly reflected, “This was the first competition we entered, and we sent a jar in literally a month after we started the company. When we won it was like, Wow, maybe we really have something here because people who frequently taste other products that incorporate spice are loving this! It was a big boost, because the pepper jelly was no longer just being admired by family, people who know us, or those who are return customers at the farmers markets. It helped us to understand that we had something with national appeal.”
“We had been curious why weren’t there more pepper jellies. There were those selling at farmers markets only and then the big brands sold at large grocery chains but nothing in between. We set our sights on that sweet spot between, led by quality and taste. We didn’t want a ‘how hot can it be’/ ‘let’s burn your mouth.’ Our jelly is sweet with a slight heat at the end—just right for the modern home entertainer.”
Reinforcing the delectable nature of the Habanero Pepper Jelly, Kelly’s Jelly would go on to win 2014 and 2016 Good Food Awards for that product. Taste their Strawberry Habanero Pepper Jelly, Marionberry Habanero Pepper Jelly, and Pineapple Jalapeño Pepper Jelly, and we think you’ll agree that their all award worthy.
Their perfect pairings chart helps spiced jelly lovers imagine many potential uses for each product and find the right place for each in their entertaining routine.
Two or three years before Kelly’s Jelly was launched, Kelly and her husband were already discussing the possibility. They had long known that the treasured family recipe from Kelly’s Great Aunt Danny (originally hand-written by Kelly’s grandmother) was something—family and friends eagerly anticipated their holiday gift of Habanero Pepper Jelly and put in requests to buy it during the off season.
But habanero peppers are hot little devils and must be taken seriously. Cut and you’ll soon find your eyes watering and throat scratching into a wicked cough. Your skin will burn and that burning sensation is easily transferred to other body parts. This was not a job for the faint of heart or hand!
Time, patience, and courage found the couple conquering the could-be-demon pepper, sourcing all-natural and premium local ingredients, and making a go of it at local farmers markets. Kelly called on her marketing background and inclination toward collaboration to forge the way forward.
Kelly is quick to point out that Kelly’s Jelly is a family- and friend-driven enterprise that thrives on the ideas, input, talents, and work of the collective.
“At first, Adam and I were doing everything from cooking and making, to farmers markets, to delivery. It was tough, but over time several friends have come to know enough they can hop aboard when needed. My Dad manages logistics, inventory, and shipping. Our kids help box and label and feel like they run the company. Having friends who can join in is especially great if, say, there’s an event in Boston and we can’t be there but this friend can step in and we can connect with customers and stores on the other side of the country. Hilary started working with us three years ago, and her official job is sales and operations, but she does a bit of everything.”
Hilary shares, “Kelly and I just work so well together. She is great about generating creative ideas and plans, and my strength is keeping us organized and on task to make sure we follow the fabulous ideas through to completion. We’re a great team.”
Below, Kelly and Hilary toast to the Fancy Food Show, and Kelly's daughters Maria and Penny pitch in.
Kelly’s pull toward collaboration came at a fertile time in the Portland food scene.
Kelly says, “We were pretty lucky to have launched when we did because there was a surge in food startups at the time, and many of those brands companies started small but have developed into national brands.”
“With the heightened interest in artisan food burgeoning around 2010 and being accessible to the Portland food scene which was at the center of all that was happening nationwide, we were in the right place at the right time. It was much easier to navigate our new business and figure this all out with friends whose similar food businesses had transitioned from local to national. We have supported, taken cues from, and played off each other.”
Kelly birthed the brilliant idea of having a contest among Portland food trucks—whose dish would make the best pairing with their Habanero Pepper Jelly? She toured food trucks, handed out jars of the jelly, and provided details about the contest. The prize? Bragging rights and visibility for all involved. “This was a creative way to work with others to build brands and relationships. My favorite part of this business is collaboration, bringing everybody up at the same time. And the fun we had with it! It was awesome.”
Among those restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs she named as collaborators was Olympia Provisions, whose cured meats and accouterments are available from The Savory Pantry. Kelly’s Jelly and Olympia Provisions have joined forces for Easter, collaborating on recipe cards that call for both of their products. If you’re in the Portland area, look for promotions at local grocery stores.
Aside from a booming food culture, being in Oregon offers other benefits.
“We have a bountiful selection of beautiful berries in Oregon. We take quality very seriously and are non-GMO verified, which is not an easy process. Vinegar, especially, is a real challenge component to that verification, but the vinegar we use is is organic and certified non-GMO. We use non-GMO cane sugar. Our preserves have three ingredients. We want everyone to know exactly what’s they’re getting, whether they’re parents spreading it on their kids’ PB&Js or adults creating a cheese board to entertain their family and friends.
Growth and Great Aunt Danny
“We really embrace our relationships and have purposely grown in a way so that we’re not overwhelmed. I’m lucky that Hilary can serve as my double when I’m not able to make a meeting or event, and our families are close so our kids all pitch in and it becomes a family effort. We pull back if we feel it necessary so that we can always be certain we’re fulfilling our promises to existing customers and strengthening existing relationships,” Kelly said.
The time and care Kelly’s Jelly takes shines through in all they do.
Kelly recently had a milestone birthday as her Great Aunt Danny was celebrating her own 91st, and Kelly was able to visit Danny in Indianapolis where she lives.
What does the recipe matriarch think of this whole jelly business that has followed her inspiration?
Kelly shares, “We would have named it Aunt Danny’s Jelly, but the name just didn’t have the same rhyming ring. It’s so funny, Aunt Danny buys it and orders it online. I’m like, you don’t have to buy it! I’ll send you it for free! But she insists on supporting the business. Customers, family, and friends have built us up this way. They like our jelly, and it’s amazing that they feel inspired to help us get the word out by recommending it to others and by sending our products as gifts to loved ones across the country. Out of this support, we grow. Everyone is a part of our company, and it makes us better and stronger.”