This is the 60th year that people worldwide have been using a Weber Grill to cook meats, vegetables, fish and anything else that can be cooked. We're a Weber Grill family with two 22" grills and a Weber smoker on our back deck landing. I never really knew the full story behind the Weber grill or the man who designed, developed and sold the first grill 60 years ago this summer. Over the past few days, I've been doing some digging on the Internet and found some interesting facts about the man who invented the Weber Grill - George A. Stephen - and how the product and the company came to be.
It was the summer of 1951 and George Stephen was using a little brazier grill to cook steaks and burgers outside because he didn't like the huge brick barbecue in his backyard that was so popular with many suburbanites after World War II. Stephen quickly became annoyed with having steaks get overcooked because he couldn't control the heat on his little outdoor grill. Plus, with windy conditions and sudden rainstorms, the brazier didn't have a lid to keep the ashes from swirling about and the elements out. He knew he needed a contraption that had a lid and a large grilling surface so he could cook more than two steaks and/or four burgers at the same time for his growing family. (George and his wife, Margaret, eventually ended up with six boys and six daughters.)
Stephen worked as the sales manager for the Weber Brothers Metal Works, a company his father owned for a number of years located on West Madison in Chicago, IL. One of their primary metal fabrications was to make buoys for area rivers and lakes. George Stephen took a look at the construction of a buoy - the top, then the middle barrel, then the bottom - and figured that if he took the middle out of the buoy, he could fashion a barbecue cooker out of the materials. He did just that, putting the bottom of the buoy on a three-legged stand and putting a handle on the lid.
Stephen took the new grill to the backyard of his Mount Prospect, IL home and started up the charcoal for steaks. When he put the lid on the top to regulate the heat, the fire suffocated. A neighbor peered over the fence at George's contraption and wondered what it was. George told him it was a barbecue kettle design he was working on and began talking to his neighbor about the dilemma he was having regarding the fire going out. The neighbor casually said, "Why don't you poke some holes in it to allow the air flow through it."
Taking the unit back to the shop, Stephen found that poking holes in the kettle did allow for the fire to get air, but there was no way to control the amount of air flow in the kettle to maintain an even heat. That's when he came up with the idea of the little discs that turned to open or close the air holes.
George's Bar-B-Que Kettle was born and his backyard suddenly became the most popular place in the neighborhood that summer of 1951. The steaks and burgers that he cooked on his kettle were the best that many of his neighbors had ever had. He decided to make some more of the kettles during the winter of 1951/52 and see if anyone else would want to buy any. It was a huge gamble. Construction costs of the kettle made it expensive - the retail price of the kettle was around $50 bucks, which would be about $450 in today's cash value. Most of the small brazier models people were using cost around $7 bucks.
Undeterred, Stephen packed one of his barbecue kettles in his station wagon that next Spring of 1952 and took off around the Midwest showing it to hardware stores. He had some early success with selling his grill, so much so that in 1955 his father allowed the younger Stephen to establish the barbecue division of the company with a fabrication plant located in suburban Wood Dale. That was the beginning of the Weber-Stephen Company. (It officially became Weber-Stephen Products in 1960 when George Stephen bought out his father). Knowing that the Weber name had a bigger cache than either his George's Bar-B-Que Kettle or the Stephen family name, George Stephen called his first production grills "Weber Grills". The rest is history.
The design of Weber Grills over the years hasn't changed too much from the original BK-710 model made back in the 50's. The same porcelain layer over the forged sheet metal gives the Weber Grills a measure of longevity. Wheels were placed on the two back legs for mobility and an ash tray located below the kettle helps keep glowing embers from burning decks and lawns. It's unique design gave the Weber Grill a nickname at the start of the Space Race in 1957 - "Sputnik" - named after the Russian satellite that was the first to go into orbit around the Earth.
The Weber-Stephen company grew over the years and in 1966 they moved to a larger facility in northwest suburban Arlington Heights. In 1980, the company moved to their present location in Palatine in the Sellstrom Industrial Park (see map). Over 500 people work at Weber-Stephen making nearly 50 different models of charcoal and gas grills.
The success of the Weber Grill has stoked the public's interest in outdoor cooking. Nearly 90 million households across the United States have some sort of outdoor grilling apparatus. Weber continues to hold the top market share of many of the grills used across the country and in dozens of countries around the world. But that's not to say that all of their designs were winners.
In the 70's when rich pastel colors become the norm with patio and poolside furniture, Weber-Stephen came out with a God-awful looking line of lime green and bright yellow grills to follow the trend. In 1965, the company came out with "The Ranger", a grill that looked similar to a wheelbarrow with a single wheel on the front and handles on the rear. I can imagine that those were dumped more than once with steaks sizzling over a roaring fire. "The Wishing Well" had a wooden barrel shaped outer shell with a crank under a little roof to raise and lower the top of the kettle. The "Barrel" had a semi-circular shaped wooden table for dining around a Weber grill that was in a barrel with a door to clean out the ashes. They even had an electric Weber grill in the 70's. Plus, there were peripheral items such as the Weber electric fire blower that was designed to help stoke the charcoal (but many of them burnt up), a nautical grill that was fixed on a pivoting gimball support that was designed to make sure the grill was level even on sloped-keel sailboats, a Weber electric insect killer, exhaust hoods for those who wanted to grill inside (they couldn't see any health hazards with that, I'm sure), and even Weber bird feeders. Now, I'd LOVE to have a Weber bird feeder. But not if it's $40 or more.
One of the biggest failures was the kettle-shaped gas grill that Weber first introduced in 1971. The general public never caught on to the shape of the Weber gas grill. In the mid-80's, the company chucked the design and came out with the Genesis series of gas grills - ones that looked more like the conventional gas grills on the market. That was when Weber became a player in the gas barbecue grill business.
Weber has had major success with their accessories including cooking utensils, aprons and mitts, chimney starters, books with grilling tips and recipes, and a number of little add-on applications such as grill lights (for those of us who cook in the dark), wireless digital thermometers (when they work, that is), and cookware that will allow you to cook anything from ribs to Chinese food to pizza.
In the late 70's, Weber-Stephen got into the catering business with their "Weber on Wheels" trailer that featured 6 of their large Ranch kettles each of which featured over 1100 square inches of cooking surface. Things went so well with their catering that they decided to open their first restaurant on Northwest Highway near their factory in Palatine. People would order food at the counter and then the entrees were brought to the table on trays. All the food was cooked on specially made 42" Weber Grills. Not quite haute cuisine, but the concept was suddenly in play. In December of 1988, the first full service Weber Grill restaurant opened along "restaurant row" in Wheeling, IL There are now four Weber Grill restaurants with three in the greater Chicagoland area and one in Indianapolis. (Click here to see my entry on the Lombard Weber Grill restaurant and here to see the Indianapolis Weber Grill entry.)
Through all of this, the man who started a revolution as to how Americans entertain kept a pretty low profile as the head of the company up until his untimely death in 1993. George Stephen never had a huge ego as he shied away from interviews with national news organizations, magazines and newspapers. Stephen despised being the "face" of Weber Grills and took his picture out of catalog and print ads in the 70's. He preferred his kettles to be the focus on his business. When Stephen passed away from cancer, obituaries that I found on line from the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Los Angeles Times were brief without much of a story about Stephen other than the story of how he forged an industry out of a buoy.
After Stephen's death, the family continued to run the business with son Jim Stephen as the CEO. But in 2010, the Stephen family sold a 51% stake in the company to BDT Capital Partners, a Chicago-based equity firm that caters toward family-run businesses. The Stephen family continues to have sole control of the four Weber Grill restaurants.
George Stephen single-handedly created a business where he not only sold millions of barbecue grills worldwide, but it opened up a whole new industry that allowed dozens of companies like Minden, Napoleon, Char-Broil, Big Green Egg, Beefeater, and Naked Whiz to come into existence with a plethora of charcoal and gas grill products. Fully functioning outdoor kitchens have become the norm with upscale houses in suburban areas across America. With many of those homes, the focal point of backyard landscaping is centered around the outdoor kitchen area. Gas grills now make up the majority of outdoor barbecue grills on the market - about 41% - but charcoal grills have been making a small comeback capturing about 2.1 percent of the market over the past three years to inch them to less than 3 percentage points to gas grill sales. Smokers account for about 5 percent of all outdoor grills.
As stated earlier, we are a three Weber grill family. We had an 18" grill up until a couple years ago when I finally had to throw it out because it was over 15 years old and it had begun to rust out. While we use the 22" with the table deck most of the time, for larger meals we'll use the other 22" for cooking vegetables, burgers or brats, or any overflow from the other grill. We cook out year round, including in the snow from time to time. Although friends have tried to get me to either go to gas (for quickness and convenience), or to look at getting a Big Green Egg (ceramic cookers seem to be the rage these days), I'm used to my Weber grills. I know how to cook on them and cook on them correctly. I just don't see me changing at any point. And I have George Stephen to thank for that.
(By the way - to the somewhat condescending guy who calls himself "Husker Red" on the Weber Kettle Club forum site, the reason I had to throw out the 18" Weber grill was because the holes where the legs go in became rusted and began to crack making the grill unstable. My current grills are 9 and 14 years old and my smoker is about six years old, so I don't quite have a need for the "latest and greatest". Finally, no, I didn't know those old "God awful" pastel grills were big to collectors. Actually, I didn't know there was such a thing as Weber collectors. Some people accuse me of being a Weber collector, but I use mine rather than just look at them. But thanks for looking in!)