Fairhope is a city located in Baldwin County, Alabama. It lies on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. It’s the birthplace of singer and songwriter, Jimmy Buffet.
The colony was founded with a corporate constitution that stated: “to establish and conduct a model community or colony, free from all forms of private monopoly, and to secure to its members therein equality of opportunity, the full reward of individual efforts, and the benefits of co-operation in matters of general concern.”
That entrepreneurial spirit still lives on in Key’s Southern Spice ™ barbeque. We interviewed Karen (Kari) Yarbrough for a discussion on her business. You will find this one quite inspirational. If you have the passion age doesn’t matter to your dream’s success.
Lang: How did you come up with the business name?
KEY: My Name is Karen Elizabeth Yarbrough, my business is named with my initials and we thought it would be an easy one for people to remember. We also trademarked the name and the slogan. KEY’s Southern Spice® and Unlock the Flavor with KEY’s®
Lang: What was the driving force that led you to start a business?
KEY: I started my business because of the numerous amount of people who liked my product and suggested that I could do more with it.
Lang: Have you always enjoyed cooking?
KEY: Prior to starting my business; I cooked with my mom and dad often, both in the kitchen and on the grill.
First pork butt cooked on the Lang trying out new technique
Lang: Do you work with a partner?
KEY: My dad is my “partner,” he handles most of the business aspects for me while I am still in high school.
Lang: What would you say is unique about your business?
KEY: My business is unique because I started it at the age of eight, furthermore, I created my product by accident. I was watching BBQ Pitmasters on TV with my parents and my dad decided to cook. I asked to help, and he showed me how to prep the meat. I decided to experiment a little with a sauce idea. I had the run of the kitchen if I made sure to write down every ingredient I mixed because I tried few different combinations and needed to be able to duplicate it. When I was done, I asked my dad to try it. I guess he wasn’t sure, so he had a glass of water in one hand in case he had to wash down the taste, but he loved it. We put it on some of the chicken and that was the start. We brought a batch to the softball game and people tried it. The girls’ softball coach bought a container for the team. Then Scott Smith a chef used it and came in tenth at the World Food Championship in 2018.
Then we bottled it ourselves until we found a source. So, it happened sorta by accident.
Lang: What about some of the challenges you faced?
KEY: The most challenging aspect of running my business is that because I am currently in school, I have to juggle both my business and school. My parents do a lot to help run my business.
Lang: How do you conduct business and provide meals to customers?
KEY: We do not have a restaurant or food truck but have several restaurants that use my product.
Keys Southern Spice, and test run on the Lang 84 Deluxe shortly after getting the rig seasoned
Lang: Tell us a bit about the startup process?
KEY: When starting my business, we spent time coming up with a label and design in which a friend of the family helped us design. My parents and I originally bottled the seasoning on our own because we had not yet grown enough to pay a bottling company. We used my story and our connections with local Piggly Wiggly store owners to put KEY’s Southern Spice® in front of the public eye.
I started my business when I was eight years old. I was experimenting with spices in the kitchen and my mom and dad told me to make sure I wrote everything down because if it was good. I needed to be able to recreate it. Well, I did, and I ended up creating KEY’s Southern Spice®. I made my parents use it on dinner that night, and that was when they realized I had something unique.
Lang: What were some unexpected challenges?
KEY: When going into business I did not expect the level of demand we had when we first started out. I also did not expect people to like my product as much as they did, their support was amazing. And as far as pitfalls go it is a very competitive seasoning market. There are a lot of folks out there with different products. I only have the one right now as it is good on a variety of proteins and vegetables. KEY’s Southern Spice® doesn’t change the flavor that it is applied to but enhances it. I guess you could say it changes with what you put it on.
The Rollin’ Smoke Competition in Mobile, Alabama with our newly purchased Lang 84 Deluxe
Lang: Any recommendations to other new startups?
KEYS: I would recommend that they should not be afraid to put themselves out there, the more you assert yourself and your business–the more connections you will make. Your best advantage will be who you know and how willing you are to push your product.
Lang: Tell us about your Lang Smoker.
KEY: We just purchased our Lang 84 Deluxe model back in July 2021 as we had been looking to replace the trailer smoker that my dad had built. It was very big and more than what we really needed. So, we sold that one and he researched the numerous smokers out there.
Lang 84 Deluxe in the driveway; used for competitions and home cooking. Takes up mom’s parking space.
After several months of research, we purchased the Lang from Mr. Ben Lang. We contacted some people that we know who own a Lang and after talking with them and their overall experience with the Lang product we had our answer.
The details and the design are awesome, and the years of experience made the Lang the best choice for KEY’s next purchase. We are getting back into some competitive cooking and demo’s representing the KEY’s Southern Spice® brand. That is why we chose to purchase the smoker, and the Lang reputation is why we chose the Lang line of products. We use the Lang 84 Deluxe and we will use it for demos and competitive cooking events.
Lang: Any thoughts on the Lang as dependable product?
KEY: My Dad likes the balance of the pull behind grill and that he can move it easily, but the durability and quality of construction seems to be top notch. Custom smokers with years of experience behind them in tweaking things here and there and that’s what my dad has noticed from his research. We like the ease of cleaning after use, drains, warmer box, and the plate in the bottom for the additional seasoning as drippings from the meats hit the plate. These are all very well thought out and useful characteristics of a Lang.
Kari’s Dad (Chad Yarbrough) at the Lang facility picking up the new Lang 84 Deluxe.
Lang: What about Reverse Flow?
KEY: The reverse flow under the plate heats the plate up and acts as a steamer keeping moisture in the cook. My Dad likes that feature a lot.
Lang: What are your aspirations as a cook?
KEY: My main goal as an aspiring chef is to learn the ins and outs of the food world, and to further my culinary skills.
Lang: Do you have a favorite meal?
KEY: My favorite meals are anything Italian, I love the culture and the food.
Lang: Have you been in any competitions?
KEY: Yes, we have competed in a few competitions. Those have been put on hold for a couple of years as they mostly conflicted with my older sister Samantha’s softball season. She plays softball at Auburn University. Before taking a break from that we competed in the 2017 BBQ & Blues Festival in Foley, Alabama where we placed second in Chicken, and third in People’s Choice.
We competed there a couple of times. Also, we competed in the Fairhope Fire Department’s fund raiser Smok’em if You got ‘Em for two years and finished in the Top 5. Recently we competed in Mobile in the Rollin Smoke Competition and placed second there in People’s Choice.
Lang: What is one of the important factors in competition?
KEY: To us it is getting the temperatures and flavors right while promoting the KEY’s Southern Spice® brand. We also like seeing the other teams and meeting people with the same passion that we have for food. And hopefully getting the call out!
Lang: What have you experienced in the barbeque community?
KEY: They are mostly friendly people that care about each other and enjoy the same love for barbeque. Competitive, but great folks to be around and learn from my favorite Pitmaster, Mr. Moe Cason.
Melissa Yarbrough (Kari’s mom, Moe Cason, and then Kari (aka KEY’s)
Moe is super nice and gave us some good insight and information that we have used numerous times. And he is not the only one. Everyone I have met has been so supportive.
Lang: What woods do you like to use?
KEYS: Pecan and/or Hickory with the occasional cherry.
Hoping you all have a Southern Spiced Up Holiday!