City Paper is not for tourists
Back in the day, if people wanted to buy one of Charles Eisendrath’s Argentine-style grills, they practically had to hire a private detective to find the mysterious man behind Grillworks. Granted, by the very nature of its product, the Ann Arbor, Mich., company was seasonal, but even in spring and summer, customers found it almost impossible to reach anyone at Grillworks, let alone Eisendrath, the former Time magazine foreign correspondent who founded it.
Eisendrath had reasons for keeping his expensive, stainless-steel Grillery (suggested price in 1984: $475, plus shipping) under wraps. He was more interested in his work at the University of Michigan, where he ran the journalism master’s program and, later, the Knight-Wallace Fellows. The company was just “recreational capitalism,” says Eisendrath, who discovered parrilla cooking while working in Argentina in 1973 and ’74. Grillworks “was a passion but one that I didn’t have to leave my day job for.”
The professor’s son, Ben Eisendrath, has a different take. “He treated it like the crazy professor: ‘If you can find me, I’ll build you a grill’,” says Ben, a former AOL executive who lives in Adams Morgan. “The number was unlisted. The University of Michigan sometimes had to field his calls. Somebody would find out he works there, and then they’d call and they would go through the University of Michigan switchboard to get to the grill.”
The shadowy nature of the enterprise didn’t stop people from seeking out the Grillery, particularly those who had heard about its unique features. The unit combined the Argentine method of grilling meats over an open wood fire with the ability, via the grill’s ever-so-slanted V-shaped grates, to capture the meat’s juices in a collection tray, where you could add oils, herbs, and seasonings to prepare your own jus right there in the backyard. Just as important for someone like Charles Eisendrath, the grill had an adjustable grate, which you could raise high above the fire for immediate grilling.
“If you’re a Type A personality—and I am—by the time the charcoal’s formed, I’m bored,” Charles told a Michigan newspaper in 1992. “With this, you light the fire and you just start cooking.”
The Grillery had some famous friends, too. The same 1992 story claims that Stephen King, Faye Dunaway, and Michael J. Fox were all customers. Ben Eisendrath even remembers the day James Beard made an inquiry, following up on a letter than Charles had sent to the founding father of American gastronomy. “He got a call back from somebody saying, ‘This is Jim Beard.’ My Dad was like, ‘Who the hell is Jim Beard? Oh my God, James Beard!’”
Not long afterward, Charles boxed up a grill and headed to New York to demonstrate the Grillery to Beard. “And when they were done, he started packing up the grill, and James Beard said, ‘That’s not going anywhere’,” Ben recalls. Beard would end up using the grill at his summer cooking school.
“It’s been the most famous grill that nobody has,” Ben quips.
And it looked to stay that way when Charles Eisendrath told his family, in the late 1990s, that he was shutting down Grillworks for good. He apparently had had enough fun tantalizing grill freaks with his semi-attainable piece of equipment. “It was sort of a tragic moment when we got that announcement from Dad,” Ben remembers. “The grill company can’t go away!”
To Ben Eisendrath, the death of Grillworks was tantamount to a death in the family. He had grown up with the Grillery, its stainless-steel form a constant presence on the family’s farm in northern Michigan. The Grillery was his source for sustenance, both gustatory and financial. During summers, Ben drew an allowance by stamping serial numbers onto the nameplates of the Grillery. He’d roam the farm’s 140 acres, searching the cherry orchards for wood suitable to fuel the grill. He’d help his father build the fires for the evening meal.
Ben would get a chance to save his old childhood friend. AOL’s crumbling online empire eventually cost Ben his job as director of new products for the company’s digital services division. He took a buyout in 2007. Not even 40 at the time, Ben looked around for his next career move and found it in the Grillery. In a signing ceremony on the family farm, father officially handed Grillworks over to son. The grills are still hand-made in northern Michigan, in a plant that also does stainless steel work for vintage cars, while Ben handles sales and marketing back home in Adams Morgan.
Rather than make the grill more populist—using cheaper materials, cutting labor costs, dropping the price—Ben Eisendrath is following a business plan that’s worked for companies ranging from Viking to Riedel: appeal to gourmets and obsessives willing to pay for the best. As such, he has fine-tuned his father’s grill, upgrading to high-polished, aircraft-grade stainless steel, doubling the grilling surface area on some models, and offering optional rotisserie kits for sale. The cheapest model, the Grillery Standard, now sells for $2,475. The most expensive free-standing grill goes for nearly $10,000.
It almost goes without saying that the Grillery’s customers tend to populate the upper levels of society: There are quotes on the Grillworks Web site from Tom Brokaw, Morley Safer, barbecue guru Steven Raichlen, and the president of MIT. Ben Eisendrath has even moved into the restaurant market, selling his grills to the likes of Dan Barber, the James Beard-winning chef behind Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a pioneer in the local/sustainable movement.
“The design is beautiful and extremely intelligent,” Barber e-mailed in response to a few questions about his Grillery. “Having an adjustable cooking surface means that we’re able to control temperature quickly and precisely, which is invaluable when you’re grilling.”
Because of its cost and clientele, Grillworks suffers the inevitable populist backlash, like these two comments on the Young & Hungry blog after I posted some pictures of the Grillery at work (“A Hardcore Grill for Non-Smokers,” 3/10/2010): “Another yuppie cooking contraption for people who have more money than brains” and “If you are dumb enough to spend $2,500 on essentially a fire pit with a grill made of $100 worth of material, go for it.”
Just three years into his ownership of Grillworks, Ben Eisendrath has grown used to the haters.
“There are people who would say the same about spending $200 on a single dinner at Blue Hill or about getting in a two year line for a $1,000 handmade Damascus chef’s knife,” e-mails Eisendrath when I asked about the subject. “Not everyone sees what makes these things special to others, and no amount of debate will make them, so I try not to engage in it.”
“When my product is presented to the people who appreciate these things the reaction is wonderful,” he adds. “It more than makes up for the hit-and-run ‘yuppie’ price jabs from people who might never understand The Grillery.”