From side-hustle to livelihood, SevenSouth Tailgating serves up faith, hospitality and tradition on game days.
by JB Clark// photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron
It’s 7 p.m. on a muggy September Friday night, and Jordyn Thornton is eyeballing the inventory on her 26-foot box truck. Her husband Kyle squawks over the walkie talkie in her hand as he organizes more than 20 two-man teams. The pairs of men are methodical as they blanket the 14-acre plot, staking their claim again and again, marking each spot with a colorful 10-foot by 10-foot tent—all while throngs of college students, vendors and football fans race for the same spots.
What looks like a mad rush to outsiders is an intentional plan, drawn out by the Thorntons and rehearsed in the nine months between football seasons.
Kyle and Jordyn know how to tailgate. On any given Saturday in the fall, they’re running some of the biggest and most successful tailgates in the country. To most, tailgating in the Grove means a potluck with family, a bourbon shared among classmates and a football game with several thousands of their closest friends. But for the Thornton’s, tailgating means a lot more. It’s their life.
Kyle and Jordyn own Seven South Tailgating, the company responsible for maintaining and installing more than 500 tailgating tents before each Ole Miss and University of Colorado home football game.
The business is an opportunity for the couple to share Ole Miss’s tradition of hospitality with their customers — and even the guests and visiting fans their customers host each week. And more than that, it’s an opportunity for their family to share their faith with Seven South’s more than 50 employees week in and week out.
But tailgating hasn’t always been such an intentional effort. In fact, it began as Kyle’s desperate attempt to cover his expenses through his college years.
“It started out of necessity—out of desperation,” Kyle said, remembering his college years. “During my freshman year, I played baseball. But that didn’t work out due to some arm issues.”
So there he was, enrolled in college, but without a scholarship.
“I had a friend who set up a few tents before home games and he didn’t want to take on any more,” Kyle said. “So he asked if I would want to take a few on. I did.”
In 2009, Thornton set up seven tents. The next year he hired a few friends and took on 31 more customers, and the business continued to evolve from there.
Kyle didn’t realize he had a full-fledged business on his hands until he attended a career fair his junior year. After much discussion, FedEx presented him with a ballpark salary offer.
“I realized I was making similar money doing tents,” he said. “So we decided to see how far we could take it. What started with seven tents for college money is now up to 450 tents here and up to 112 tents at Colorado.”
Kyle and Jordyn dated since they were in the same middle school in Tupelo, and the company grew so fast that by the end of their junior year of college, they had enough money to get married and buy a home. That’s when Jordyn began devoting more and more of her time to the business as well.
“I didn’t start immediately because it was a smaller business and I was busy on game days working in the football office,” Jordyn said. “But as it grew, I pitched in. And once we were married, I was in it every weekend.”
Ten years later, the Thorntons are still going strong — growing their company with the addition of Kyle’s dad as the head of their Colorado operations in 2016. And the young couple (who both turn 30 in September) are growing their family. Kyle, Jordyn and their two-year-old daughter Kate are expecting another child after the 2019 football season wraps up.
Seven South has been a blessing to the Thorntons and they feel convicted to share that success with others, whether by taking care of their employees, upholding the tradition of hospitality in the grove, or by spreading Ole Miss’s tailgating experience to other campuses.
Where some tailgating companies use a revolving cast of college students for labor, Seven South emphasizes offering good pay and support to employees who will be back season after season.
“If we’re doing 450 tents, and no two groups are the same, we can’t run a different crew out every weekend or even each year,” Kyle said. “We have to have folks who know the customers and what they want. They even go to the tents themselves and get feedback from our customers. And more than that, for Jordyn and I, it’s a ministry. We have a devotional time every Friday night. We pray as a team before we set up. Christ is truly the center of our business.”
The Thorntons see the emphasis they place on their faith and relationships reflected in their employees, their customers and anyone who drops by one of the tailgates they manage.
“I do this because of the people,” Jordyn said. “We’ve been to lots of tailgates, and the hospitality our customers and the people of Ole Miss show to their own fans, as well as away fans — you see lots of mixed tents with opposing fans — I think that’s neat. The people are always ready to entertain and have a good time, and I think that’s special.”
Kyle agreed, saying their customers are an impressive group of people.
“They’re truly unique in the hospitality and kindness you see throughout. When away, fans walk through the middle of the Grove, they’re not going to get hazed. They’ll get invited in and handed a plate of food. That’s not just on game day either. That’s during the week when we’re communicating with our customers and planning. They’re so polite and caring. There isn’t a nose-in-the-air mentality with any of them.”
The company is showing no signs of slowing down. Each season, they aim to grow, but only at a pace that allows them to maintain the same quality of service.