Grilling up Good Ideas
Nothing says summer like getting the grill out of the garage and cooking up a meal in the backyard, but how often do we think about the innovations behind that technology? In the United States, barbecue adherents tend to favor one of two grilling methods: some prefer the convenience and control of a gas grill while self-described “purists,” are loyal to the flavor that comes from a charcoal-fired grill.
The standard charcoal grill is often a round, spherical design, like the iconic Weber Kettle. In fact, that invention gave rise to the outdoor grilling culture so prevalent in America today. With that culture came a new technological ecosystem where innovations constantly enter the marketplace to complement and enhance earlier designs. The result is that the Weber Kettle and the various add-ons combine to create a cooking device that exceeds the capabilities of each individual product on its own.
Today, the Weber grill is not just for hotdogs and burgers. Thanks to continued innovation, weekend barbecuers can quickly and easily configure their kettle to bake a pizza, smoke a turkey, or even cook a full breakfast with fried bacon and eggs.
In 1951, George Stephen was working for Weber Brothers Metal works in Chicago. At home he grilled with a brazier, a lidless steel box incorporating a design in use for centuries. Dissatisfied with the inefficiency of open-air grilling, Stephen knew he could devise something better. He used the bottom of a sheet-metal buoy produced at the Weber Brothers factory for the grill portion and the top of the buoy as the lid. After adding a set of tripod legs and a handle, he had his first prototype. But all didn’t go smoothly during the initial testing. While the lid retained heat and shielded the flames from wind, it had a habit of snuffing out the fire. Stephen recognized the need for a constant supply of air to keep the coals hot. So, he drilled three holes in the lid and completed his invention.
In 1958, Stephen bought the Weber Brothers factory and established Weber-Stephen Products. Annual sales of Weber grills grew to 800,000 units by the 1970s. Eventually, gas grills dramatically cut into the sales and use of charcoal grills. But in recent years, charcoal has made a comeback, and with it has emerged a trove of inventions that add to the versatility of the Weber Kettle.
Rolf Buerkle devised a cast iron grate system to replace the standard Weber cooking grates. Al Contarino’s KettlePizza modifies the Weber grill so that you can replicate the high-temperature wood-burning environment of a traditional pizza oven. And the late Don Thompson created the Smokenator, which converts a standard Weber Kettle into a water smoker.
Buerkle saw a need for a cast-iron grate when he noticed how many people bought replacement grates for their Weber grills. The unforgiving environment of heat and moisture can quickly ruin the plated steel cooking grate that comes standard with each Weber grill. Now grillers have a choice: keep replacing a grate when it rusts or upgrade to something that is going to last 10 years or more with proper care. The modular system also allows for different types of cooking surfaces, from standard grates and hot plates to vegetable woks and chicken holders.
Contarino had other ideas when he invented the KettlePizza. The device adds an extension to the kettle design and a horizontal slit opening to slide in a pizza, which eliminates the need to take off the lid and allows for hotter and longer heat retention. Contarino calls himself a serial inventor, and he already had a number of inventions in the barbecue field, but it took going to a grilling tradeshow and talking about the growing trend of grilling pizza to move this idea forward.
Thompson was searching for a way to smoke a turkey on his Weber grill when he came up with the idea for the Smokenator. He designed a sheet-metal baffle that, when inserted into the kettle, creates a separate compartment to hold coals and a water pan. It generates consistent low, indirect heat—an important requirement for American style “low n slow” barbecue. Thompson’s simple yet novel design was so effective that he patented it and launched a successful home business, garnering a loyal customer following before he passed away from cancer in 2009. His wife, Stephanie, said her husband’s goal was “to make it possible for the average person to be able to smoke meat easily.” Today, Stephanie Thompson and her son and daughter continue running the family business.
Buerkle, Contarino, and Thompson all had two things in common. Each of them was passionate about grilling, and each found a way to invent something that anyone could use on a Weber grill. But why make something that modifies another person’s invention, and why Weber specifically? According to Stephanie Thompson, Weber grills are the “best known, the best-selling, and it’s affordable.”
Weber grills and the many add-ons created by independent inventors also illustrate a key aspect of the innovation cycle. In the case of George Stephen’s barbecue, it quickly established itself as a benchmark technology in the field of outdoor cooking. Over the years, different individuals saw limitations in the original design but also recognized that it was an integral part of the barbecue landscape. By innovating around and adding to what already existed, these inventors helped to push the capability and state of the art forward.
Every inventor agrees that having a patent is very important, but they often have a unique personal philosophy regarding why they are important. Stephanie Thompson said it shows that “we have put a lot of thought into the product and that it is unique.”
Contarino said a patent is very useful when talking with retailers because “it shows that it is your product and that it can’t be knocked off.”
“Barbecue products are very simple to produce and therefore copy,” added Buerkle, “so patenting helps a lot.”
Contarino leaves us with one final piece of advice for those going into business: “Plan before you file for a patent—know what you are going to do before you move forward.”
In other words, do your homework and keep on grilling.