George Stephen, a boisterous man with a hearty appetite for just about anything cooked over a charcoal fire, could not find a smokeless barbecue grill that delivered the slow, even heat he wanted. So one day in 1951 he selected a steel spinning from the Chicago sheet-metal factory, Weber Bros. Metal, of which he was part owner. He had a foreman shape it into a bowl, fashioned a spherical cover, and installed the contraption in the backyard of his home in Mount Prospect, Ill.
Stephen had no intention of founding a new business, but 26 years later, after steady but unspectacular sales, his grill has caught fire. It is one of the fastest-selling outdoor cookers in the country, and Stephen's factory in Arlington Heights, Ill., is humming trying to keep up with demand. Though the Weber Barbeque Kettle costs more than many competing models (the suggested retail price is about $80 for the 22½-m. version), sale's are increasing at 25% to 40% a year; in 1976 they reached more than $20 million. The grills are catching on worldwide; they are hot sellers in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. One reason for their popularity: with all the talk about energy saving, people have an added incentive to shun the gas or electric stove in favor of alfresco cooking.
The secret of the grill's success is its versatility: under its heat-distributing dome, a backyard chef can cook a suckling pig, bake bread and produce an entire dinner at the same time. Moreover, the grill turned out to be a penny-saving charcoal miser: closing the dampers extinguishes the fire, so that leftover charcoal can be reused. These virtues made Stephen's neighbors clamor for copies of his initial grill; after he had made a few of them, demand seemed so strong that in 1958 he left the sheet-metal company to found Weber-Stephen Products Co. and make the grills full time. In 1964 he took over an old factory in Arlington Heights to increase output.
Stephen is currently backing up his grill with a corny promotion campaign featuring TV spots and live demonstrations in shopping centers around the country, during which "Sammy Scorch" messes up a meal on an old-style barbecue while a nattily attired "Freddie Flavor" prepares smokeless dinners on his Weber.
Now a millionaire at 56, Stephen employs more than 200 people (including five of his twelve children), he owns a 75-ft. trawler, rents a Colorado vacation condominium, and has a girth that testifies to his appreciation of the delicacies that sizzle on his grills. This fall he will start a promotion campaign to make Weber a grill for all seasonscatering not only to the summer chef but also to the diehard, if sometimes frostbitten, barbecue aficionado's Thanksgiving or Christmas roast turkey.