One of WKCs newest members mentioned that he was on Weber’s demonstration crew in the early 60s. With those kinds of stories to tell, we just had to reach out and learn more. The following record captures a conversation with Jim that I had on July 24th, 2013. MartyG
I grew up in Illinois, went to school in Colorado, Graduate school at the University of Pittsburg, moved to Fort Worth, TX in 1972 and have lived here since then. In 1997 I started a company that manufactures air conditioning filters. The company now has about 85 employees, offices and warehouses in three cities and business is great. We do almost entirely commercial business selling to schools, municipalities, building management companies and mechanical contractors.
As a kid, I lived in Itasca, IL – about 20 miles west of Chicago. Wood Dale is the next suburb over – maybe three or five miles from my house. At that time Wood Dale was the home of the Weber Stephen Products Company. They started in Chicago, then George started the Bar-B-Q thing and I guess he lived out in MT Prospect or something, and Wood Dale is kind of in the middle. He found a small place to call home and that’s where I connected with him.
My Dad (Charles) was in the printing business, and owned a printing business in Itasca. One of his customers was Weber Stephen Products Company. In fact, one of my earliest memories of George Stephen was when George asked my Dad to invite me to go out on his boat (something like a 38 foot sailboat) for the day on Lake Michigan. We went out for about 45 minutes, until George determined the wind was not right that day and we came back in. I was maybe 11 at the time.
My Dad had a salesman who was also my little league baseball coach by the name of Ed Shaper. Ed called on George Stephens and George said, “You know, you’re really good, and I’d like to hire you to work with me.” Ed had come from International Harvester, where he was let go following a reorganization. My Dad brought him in, and he worked in the printing business for a couple years. My Dad’s interest was in seeing Ed do well, and Ed was a nice guy, so in 1962 or 1963, Ed went over to Weber Stephen. Weber at the time was nothing; the total square footage was maybe 8,000 sq. ft., including offices and factory. It was located right off of Irving Park Blvd.
So Ed became the sales manager. George could invent it, but he needed the guy who could really make it grow. Once Ed was hired, he really hit the ground running. George had the idea to do demos, but Ed was the one who really made them go; recruiting people, organizing it and making it work.
George Stephen was very “hands-on” with his business. He was involved in everything from the design of grills, to the recipes in the cookbook, to production and to the marketing of the product. But I think Ed was the implementer. They were a good team.
Ed gave my wife and me a Weber grill as a wedding present in 1971. I used it as my only grill up until 5 years ago when I gave it to one of my sons. I now grill on a Weber Performer.
So one afternoon, Ed called me up and asked if I would like to make $25.00 doing a demo. (I was 17 at the time, and that was lot of money in those days – maybe $250 in today’s dollars.) I asked him what I’d have to do for it, and Ed said “just demonstrate a Weber grill at Polk Brothers. ” Of course I said OK, and he said come over to Wood Dale at 7 O’clock. (p.m.) So I drive over there, knock on a big metal door, and look through a window that’s about five feet high. It’s kind of dark inside and all I see are these two big eyes looking back at me from the other side of the window. All I could think was “Holy Cow” what is that? I could tell they were not human eyes. Ed opened the big metal door, and there was the Great Dane that had been staring at me eye to eye through the window. It was the Stephen family dog, and I realized he had been standing on all fours looking through the window!
Ed had asked me to recruit a friend to help out, and I brought a friend of mine I had known since grade school. So we went in and had our “demo training” – consisting of Ed bringing out a kettle, and making the infamous aluminum drip pan using foil. I still can do that in my sleep. They didn’t have the pressed aluminum pans they sell today. Basically a double layer of foil, and you fold up the sides so it’s leak-proof.
So he showed us how to make the pans, stack the charcoal on both sides of the pan, rub butter, salt and pepper on two chickens, wait thirty minutes for the coals to be ready, put the chickens in the center of the grill, put the top on, open the top and bottom vents about half way. That was the extent of our training, and he told us we needed to be at Polk Brothers at 9:00am Saturday to start cooking.
He also talked to us about the features of the grill too, so we could explain it to people who showed up at the demo. The fact that it was made well, and had a porcelain coating so it would never rust, aluminum legs. Made to last, and well worth the $49.95 – it would last forever.
The kettles we used for the demos were taken from stock – black or red was all I remember using. Basically, we would go to the store, take a kettle out of the box, put it together and start cooking. We brought plates and utensils, and carving knives, and people would come up and we would give them samples.
I was on my own for that first demo. I remember showing up at the Polk Brothers store and being shown where to set up. I had never put a grill together so I tried to act like I knew what I was doing since I already had a small audience. But it was easy and I think I looked pretty professional. I prepared the pan and the charcoal as I had been shown, put the two buttered chickens on the grill and put on the lid. I was too afraid to take the lid off since I was certain I was going to be exposed as the rank amateur that I was. After it started smelling pretty good, a good size crowd formed. One guy kept asking me to take the cover off so they could see what I was cooking.
Finally, the pressure to take off the lid exceeded my fear of embarrassment and removed the top of the Weber. To my amazement, relief and joy there were two of the most beautiful brown chickens on that grill that I had ever seen. I have been sold on Weber’s ever since.
Remember that at the time, people were using really cheap stamped out grills that they bought one year, left outside all winter, and bought a new one the next season. People knew so little about grilling at the time that they would start the fire outside, then move the grill inside to finish the cooking! The only way you could cook a chicken was to use a rotisserie. George Stephen created the idea of indirect cooking. So there was this novelty factor at the demo – you had these young novice kids cooking absolutely delicious chickens, hams, roasts and all kinds of stuff. If they could do it, anybody could.
I did one luau, and we roasted a whole pig. Weber did bigger demos with their “first string team” too – usually sales people for the company. They would do festivals and well-publicized events using the big kettles, with three of four people working the grills. Most of the demos were smaller scale. Polk Brothers had 15 stores, and they would send one or two people to each location. About half the demos I did with someone else, and the other half I did alone. I did a total of about 15 demos.
The amazing thing is that nothing unexpected ever happened. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a Weber fan: it’s pretty hard to screw it up! I almost always cooked Chicken; it was available, easy, smelled great, always turned out good – pretty much tried and true. This was long before rubs and smoking were known to anyone. I maybe threw some Lawry’s Seasoning Salt on. Nobody knew what a meat thermometer was. It was simple, and people liked the idea that here was a product they could cook anything on that would last.
One of the main people who would do the larger events (like the Luaus) and demos every weekend was a guy that ran one of the printing presses for my Dad: Ed Hildebrand – a handsome blonde guy with a great physique. He had become friends with Ed Shaper when Ed was working for my Dad, and Ed recruited him to help out on the weekends. So he ran the letterpress Monday through Friday and he’s the Luau chief on Saturday and Sunday! (Throw an apron on him and he’s the Chef!)
Most of the grills we used were 22.5s. None of the smaller grills were available, and they brought the big one out only for the luau or other big events. We never used the same grill twice; they were always new each time. (Except for the big ones that I think they made special for the events – it wasn’t called the Ranch Kettle then, and I don’t think they were selling them.)
I demonstrated Weber’s for one summer. I was working full time for my Dad in the summer as well, so I did not have much free time. Since I loved and still love to play golf, this put a big dent in my weekend golf rounds. I never really quit the demonstrating job, but after a few times when I said I was not available, they stopped asking. Of course, in a way, I have been demonstrating Weber’s ever since. It is pretty hard to come over to our house when I am cooking something on the Weber and not hear the “story.” I probably have “sold” at least 50 Weber grills to friends and neighbors over the years.
Weber moved to Arlington Heights around 1966. We did all the printing for them, so I was over there all the time as a delivery driver. The cookbooks were printed and assembled in our shop in Itasca. When I was growing up we had all kinds of Weber stuff around the house; aprons, cooking utensils, knives and many other things that had the Weber name on them. I think the only things I still have are a set of salt and pepper shakers – shaped like a Weber grill. We’re still using them today.
My Dad owned a motorhome, and George Stephen gave him the original prototype for a mobile grill to go into a motor home. It was a smaller kettle and was built into a box – where you flip the box open and the grill was actually part of the box. So when it was open, part of the box was used as a prep area, and the other side is where the grill sat.
I am cooking on a Weber Performer now. I use it year-round. I cook everything from hamburgers to turkeys. I am not a great chef, but I have total confidence that I can cook anything on a Weber. I was thrilled to learn about the Weber Kettle Club. It is nice to know that there are other people in the world who are as big Weber supporters as I am.
Jim Rosenthal – Fort Worth, Texas – July 2013