- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

PALATINE, Ill.

For thousands of avid Weber grill users, the question isn’t so much gas or charcoal. It’s how to fit all of them on their patios.

John Gerald Gleeson has four Weber grills on the deck of his home in Gaylord, Mich. — from Weber’s humble charcoal kettle to a $2,200 stainless-steel job with six burners. His specialties include a slow-cooked ham braised in a bourbon-brown sugar glaze.

“I’ve used other grills in the past, before I saw the light,” the retired lawyer says.

Gushing customer testimonials are the norm for Weber, which has become an iconic American brand in the 55 years since founder George Stephen created his three-legged kettle — a backyard oddity that his neighbors came to call “Sputnik.”

While the image of Weber’s apple-shaped kettle has endured, Palatine-based Weber-Stephen Products Co. has coupled it with a reputation for durability and simplicity that has fostered a loyal following.

“You ask just about anybody who owns a Weber — I don’t think they ever have to buy another one,” said Chris Schlesinger, owner of East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., and author of several books on grilling.

Weber introduced its first line of gas grills in the mid-1980s, and today, it manufactures most of its products in-house, with shipments divided about evenly between charcoal and gas, Mr. Stephen said.

At a plant west of Palatine in Huntley, Ill., flat slabs of steel are pressed into the trademark kettle shape, coated in porcelain enamel and fired in a massive furnace at 1,600 degrees.

Engineers at Weber’s 50-person research-and-development shop routinely “torture test” the products — one stainless steel gas grill has been burning full bore for six months at 850 degrees. Others are soaked in saltwater to see how they withstand coastal environments, Weber Executive Vice President Mike Kempster Sr. said.

The upcoming Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of barbecue season: 62 percent of grill owners say they barbecue then, second only to the Fourth of July holiday at 74 percent, according to a 2005 survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

Weber competes with WC Bradley Co., maker of the Char-Broil brand, for dominance in the U.S. grill market — valued at nearly $2.3 billion last year, according to market researcher the NPD Group.

It’s a vast but saturated market: About 81 percent of U.S. homes owned an outdoor grill in 2005 — up 10 percent from 2003, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

The trade group also found that consumers increasingly are buying larger, more-sophisticated grills — an indication that there is room for growth.

Neither company discloses sales figures; both are private and family owned. Columbus, Ga.-based WC Bradley Co. claims to have the upper hand in both revenue and unit shipments. Weber claims the two are “neck and neck,” and together they account for almost half of the U.S. market.

But few doubt that Weber has an edge in brand recognition. For many, it has reached that rare status where the brand becomes the product, such as Tabasco or Coke.

Its customer devotion is evident on a new Web site that Weber introduced last month as a forum for customers’ favorite grill stories: One guy wrote a haiku about his six Weber grills. An Ohio woman claims to have used her Weber to cook an entire Christmas Eve dinner — including a rib roast, potatoes and other vegetables — after an ice storm knocked out power.

A Michigan woman even wrote to express joy over keeping her Weber charcoal kettle in her divorce settlement.

“It has been much more faithful than my ex-husband,” she wrote.

The grill’s origin dates to 1951, when Weber Brothers Metal Works employee George Stephen began his quest for a better barbecue by slicing in half a metal buoy otherwise destined for the Chicago Yacht Club. He used it to fashion a kettle-shaped bowl and lid.

His theory: Allow enough air flow underneath the bed of coals to keep them hot, but use the lid to suffocate the briquettes just enough to prevent the flare-ups common in the shallow-pan barbecues of his day.

The system worked, although it would take some convincing.

“Dad would literally load the grill into a station wagon, go to a hardware store and set up a demonstration,” said son Jim Stephen, chief executive officer of Weber Stephen since his father’s death in 1993. “He would cook a turkey or a pig or something, and people would be in awe.”


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