Weber grill
Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP
Jim Stephen, president and chief executive officer of Weber-Stephen Products Co., looks through the grate of one of the company's Weber Grills at their Palatine, Ill., headquarters. Weber enjoys an edge in brand recognition and for many it has reached that rare status where the brand becomes the product, like Tabasco or Coke.
updated 5/15/2006 7:34:46 AM ET 2006-05-15T11:34:46

For thousands of avid Weber grill users, the question isn't so much gas or charcoal. It's how to fit multiple versions of each on their back 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 attorney 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 an nearly cult-like loyalty.

"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.

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 there is room for growth.

Neither company discloses sales figures; both are private and family owned. Columbus, Ga.-based Char Broil 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 about half of the U.S. market.

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

Its customer devotion is evident on a new Web site Weber launched 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 veggies — 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.

She wrote: "It has been MUCH more faithful than my ex-husband!"

The grill's origin dates to 1951, when Weber Brothers Metal Works employee George Stephen launched 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 briquets 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, CEO 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."

It turns out form was just as important as function: The modest kettle design seared itself into the consciousness of generations of back yard tong-twirlers.

"It wasn't only a revolutionary grill, but it was a grill with personality," said Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue Bible" and host of a barbecue show on public television, which Weber co-sponsors.

Stephen eventually fine-tuned a method of "indirect" cooking: positioning coals at the edges of the grill and placing a drip pan underneath the meat, allowing it to slow-cook while infusing it with a smoky flavor.

"It brought a gigantic number of food recipes into the back yard that could have never been done on previous grilling equipment," Raichlen said.

Of course, grilling is an art form, and not everyone subscribes to the Weber way.

Schlesinger says Weber's insistence on covering the grill even when cooking directly over the coals — allowing sizzling fat to drip directly onto the briquets — has led millions of grillers astray.

"It's way easier because you just throw the lid on and you don't have to think about it," Schlesinger said. "But it gives the food this greasy smoke flavor. It's a crummy way to grill."

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

At a plant west of Palatine in Huntley, 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 salt water to see how they'll withstand coastal environments, Weber Executive Vice President Mike Kempster said.

Weber must be doing something right, says Ann Chilton, owner of Annie's Sazarac tavern in Beardstown, Ill. Every Monday she grills up to 90 pounds of her signature ribs on three Weber charcoal kettles in her cook shack out back.

"It's so easy to control the heat," Chilton says. "I just set the temperature and cook on them all night long."

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