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B B Q's 'R' U S

If It Doesn't Move GRILL IT

It Was a Long, Sizzling summer on the Weber Hotline

September 15, 1996|Mary Melton | Mary Melton is the magazine's research editor

For 18 denizens of Palatine, Ill., autumn brings falling foliage, football and the bittersweet end to fielding phone calls placed to "1-800-GRILL-OUT." The maker of Weber grills entrusts these freelance home economists, re-christened as "Certified Barbecue Experts" from Easter to Labor Day, to answer consumer barbecue conundrums. It's the Weber Grill-Line's third year. Though a nasty winter led to a slow grilling start, the barbecue experts--all women, the youngest of whom turned 40 this summer--tallied 100 more calls a day above last season's average, an increase they ascribe to word getting out about the hotline.

In 1952, a barbecue-loving Midwesterner and welder named George Stephen modified two marine buoys at his job with the Weber Brothers Metal Works factory in Chicago, and thus the distinctive, UFO-shaped Weber kettle was born. It was such a phenom that Stephen, who had become flush selling the elements-defying grills, later bought out the factory's barbecue division. Eleven of his 12 children still work at the renamed Weber-Stephen Products Co., which churns out grills--from the best seller, the little Smokey Joe tabletop grill, to the Gas Go-Anywhere and high-tech Genesis 5000--and barbecue accouterments from the Corn-N-Tater Holders to the Steam-N-Chips Smokers. Red remains the most popular grill color, especially for male buyers.

According to the Barbecue Industry Assn., outdoor grills are more popular than ever, with 83% of American families the proud owner of at least one. "There's a trend toward more casual living," says spokeswoman Donna Myers, "more decks are being built and people like food that has a lot more oomph to it. Barbecues fit into that." Weber gas grills now surpass charcoal grills in sales, a fact attributed to the gas grills' quick lighting, not to mention environmental concerns over lighter fluid's destructive effect on the ozone. Indeed, among all brands purchased in the United States in 1995, gas outsold charcoal 5.8 million to 5.3 million. And while Weber is the name most people think of when they think barbecue, Sunbeam is actually the largest manufacturer, Myers reports.

Weber kettles are also feeding the growing international market, where sales are warming up to the point that in 1999, Switzerland will host the first World Barbecue Championship (the United States will host in the year 2000). "When Prince Charles and Di were on better terms," recalls Jim Forbes, Weber's senior vice president of sales, "they said their favorite food was barbecue, and that was a big shot in the arm." While Australia and South Africa have long-standing big-game grilling traditions, in Asia, Forbes says, "most people live in apartments or condominiums. They tend to gravitate toward the Smokey Joe." Eastern Europe poses cultural barriers. "They haven't overcome the stigma that men don't cook, period," Forbes rues, with Weber research indicating it's the guys who normally hold the tongs in the family.

Weber's annual barbecuers' poll often yields a few sizzling tidbits, such as Robert Redford is the U.S.A.'s No. 1 fantasy barbecue guest, and California is No. 2 in calls to dial 1-800-GRILL-OUT. "Illinois grills year round because they're hearty souls," Forbes says in explaining that state's No. 1 status. "Californians are so spoiled, they go outside and there's a cloud and they say, 'It's not a good day to barbecue.' In California, a good barbecue day is a state of mind."

Q & A with Dorothy Jones,Certified Barbecue Expert

Dorothy Jones, a home economist from Matteson, Ill., has answered 'cue queries for callers from Waikiki to Winnipeg since the inception of the Weber Grill-Line. Jones recounts a season on the grill.

What was this summer's hot question?

"My fire is going out, how come?" Usually, they don't have vents open or haven't cleared up the ashes.

Any unexpected ones?

A man in Wisconsin who raises peanuts was harvesting and asked if he could roast them on a gas grill. Sure, you can do anything as long as you have a receptacle [to hold them]. The way-out question was a woman from Maine whose husband had grazed a moose with his motorcycle: "Did we have recipes?"

Aside from moose, what did callers throw on the grill this summer?

It looks like poultry wins out. The first year--1994--we got a lot questions on how to do fish. Last year, men called wanting recipes for cooking game, but chicken is always a top category.

Did you go through a Weber U?

We have hands-on training for three days. This year, the Palatine, Ill., Fire Department gave a presentation on grill safety.

Is there a manual you consult?

Oh yes, we have our bible. It's a 3-inch binder full of information, and each of us has our own binder of favorite recipes.

How many calls a day do you all field?

About 350. Some days, over 500.

What day's the busiest?

Monday. The first year we were open on Saturday. The thinking was people would be right at their grill with their portable phones calling us. Saturday was a dead day.

Do men grill more than women?

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