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‘Captain Rodney’ brand sails across the nation

Posted on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 at 8:00 am


From left are Brandy Simmons, Mason Simmons, “Captain” Rodney Simmons, Tori Simmons, Brad Simmons and Brian Simmons, also known as the “Jelly Man”. (Photos by Mark McGee)

From an eight ounce jar of pepper jelly a great food producer was born.

Rodney Simmons, known in the food industry as “Captain Rodney”, had no plans to start what would become a business with over 150 products sold across the country.

After selling two airplane dealerships in Florida, Rodney and his wife Linda moved back to Middle Tennessee. Linda decided to open up a business called Traditions in Bell Buckle. Rodney, who grew up in Nashville, was content spending much of his time fishing on Normandy Lake with an occasional trip to the ocean for some sport fishing.

“When we came home I was retired,” Rodney said. “We had moved to Lakeland, Florida and Linda did a lot of the driving back and forth. She realized she could save 10 minutes going to see her parents by detouring through Bell Buckle and she fell in love with the place. She met people there and, eventually, bought a shop at auction.”

Linda, who opened the shop in 1988, had plans for expansion which ended up cutting back on Rodney’s fishing.

“She wanted me to make some pepper jelly from my grandma’s recipe,” Rodney said. “She wanted to sell something our family had made. We were growing bell peppers and hot peppers and later on we grew our own onions.”

The choice of pepper jelly was made almost by necessity. The Simmons’ garden was producing more bell pepper than they could use. Even neighbors, who were often the beneficiaries of the bounty, said “no more bell peppers”.

Strawberry jam was next followed by lemon curd, both based on requests from customers at Linda’s store. Most of the early products were made with the movies Cyrano De Bergerac and The Buccaneer playing in the background on a VHS player.

The original Traditions sign which hung in front of the Bell Buckle Country Store, Linda Simmon’s shop, and the first time Captain Rodney products were for sale.

“Very little of this was planned,” Rodney said. “It just came together.”

Adventures in eating

From pepper jelly to lemon curd the line has exploded with 30 different products under the Captain Rodney Private Reserve Label. Rodney emphasizes that they also make and market products under nine other brands including the Bell Buckle Country Store Label and Rose & Ivy.

An article on tailgating at Ole Miss Football games in the “Jackson Clarion-Ledger” mentioned that most tables had a bottle of Captain Rodney’s Boucan Glaze. A little while later Mississippi Magazine named “Captain Rodney’s Cheesebake” using their Boucan Glaze “The Top Tailgating Recipe in the South”. Those mentions sent the product sales skyrocketing.

The Boucan Glaze’s origins can be traced back to pirates living in the Caribbean long ago. Rodney, who was reading James Michener’s “Caribbean” a historical novel, came across some interesting information.  To preserve meat, usually boar, for long voyages a combination of wines and spices seasoned the meat while it cooked. Rodney said the meat was slow smoked over an open fire on a wooden rack called a “Boucan” with the pirates earning the nickname “boucan-neers” which developed into “buccaneers”.

The jelly man

The Simmons clan isn’t resting on its laurels. Son, Brian, who helped launch the company when they incorporated in 1995, is always looking for new combinations of ingredients. One of his most recent top sellers is Captain Rodney’s Pineapple Pepper Jelly, which mixes fresh pineapple, Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper, combined with locally grown sweet bell peppers, apple cider vinegar and pure cane sugar.

“It’s like most of the things we do,” Brian said. “We try to get layers of flavor you might not expect to go together and make them work.”

Sometimes it starts with a name. Brian wanted to make a product called “Crackberry” and he had to fight for the name. Both Brad and Rodney expressed concerns if anyone would want to buy a jam named “Crackberry”.

Brian was not deterred and his determination was rewarded. Crackberry Sweet and Tart Jam is a solid seller under Captain Rodney’s Private Reserve Label.

“I really wanted to make a Jam named Crackberry,” Brian said. “Blackberries and cranberries together make Crackberry. It turns out the sweetness of the blackberries and the tartness of the cranberries make a really good jam.”

“When I made it I thought, man this is really good. It has ended up being a really great product. We wouldn’t have it out there if it wasn’t a good product.”

Sometimes a new product takes time to develop.

“I have been working on one for four years,” Brian said. “I can’t get the flavor right and I am not going to put it out until it is right. People trust us if we tell them something is really good.”

Everything is still made by hand at the Bell Buckle Country Store Warehouse. In the beginning even these jams were marked for sale by handwritten labels.

How much more

The Captain Rodney brand is available nationwide and sold in small shops and gourmet grocery’s across the country.

As Brian says, “Most of our customers have Main or First Street in their address and are important parts of their local communities, and we just love working with these small businesses.”

Of course, to support those local businesses they had to expand their own.

After the family kitchen became too small they converted a two-bay workshop/barn on the farm into a small factory which, at times, operated 24 hours a day.

Rodney admits that when they first bought the much larger building in Farmington he wasn’t sure if they had made the right decision.

“There was a place above an office in the front of the building and we stood and looked out at it,” Rodney said. “We thought there was no way we were going to fill all the space up.”

He need not have been concerned.

The area is now full with offices, an experimental kitchen, product storage, a large cooking area, bottling, packaging and distribution.

Four generations have worked together to make Captain Rodney’s products and three generations are still involved on a daily basis. Margaret and Sam Ralston, the great-grandparents, provided many of the early recipes and helped out in the kitchen. At 97, Margaret still drops by from time-to time to check on the family and consult on recipes.

The philosophy of the business has always been the same from the start in the family kitchen. Small batches made with the finest ingredients available will always make the best flavors.

“To this day it is not good enough to succeed according to other people’s standards, but it has to measure up to our standards which are a little bit higher as far as flavor and quality are concerned,” Rodney said. “We don’t want to make 500 products that are okay, we would rather have 30 products that are amazing.”

The Simmons weren’t sure they could fill the racks at their warehouse and factory, but that hasn’t proven to be a problem.