The Birth of a Grill Designer

A former dot-com executive learns what it means to save a family business, follow an unexpected path, and discover an unlikely passion for metalwork


One gift this past Christmas was a weathered little box. It was from my father, known for strokes of genius around holiday time—genius that often took the form of dried, mounted piranhas or nine-foot boathooks.

Marked "you can't properly run a grill company without your tools" in Dad's illegible reporter's handwriting, the cardboard was bound with cracked rubber bands that snapped as I worked them off the box. Inside lay a jumble of tiny metal pegs. These were what my 10-year-old self had used, along with a rubber mallet, to stamp the serial numbers into Dad's grills.

In those days Grillworks's corporate headquarters occupied Dad's bottom left desk drawer, and his framed patents were on the kitchen wall. Mom's scratchy answering machine message welcomed all callers to "The Eisendraths and Grillworks Incorporated," and the University of Michigan switchboard knew to direct grill inquiries to the journalism department.

But 25 years later, by the turn of 2000, the company was building only a trickle of new grills. And Dad's last metalsmith was to call it quits shortly, his back too worn to move the steel anymore.

Still, calls came, curious chefs showed up to meet Dad, and a few dusty grills stood waiting in the family barn. Grillworks drew shallow breath. So in 2005, 28 years after I hammered my last serial number, it was still trauma to hear Dad say he would officially shut down Grillworks.

Asked why, he answered simply: "I've had my fun." It was like hearing that the family pet would be euthanized. When I pressed him, Dad explained that he just didn't have the heart to look for new guys to build the grills. He was done.

A few months later, with Grillworks still languishing in hospice, brother Mark and I met Dad in Argentina for a fishing trip. This country, a grill-Mecca, was our home in the early '70s and remains the place that most inspired the Grillery's design. Since father-son talks in our family traditionally occur over water, this was also the setting for my career counseling. I'd spent 10 years at a major dot-com and was considering options farther along the tech path. The fishing proved excellent, but answers were elusive.

The Argentine lodge we stayed in hosted large, communal dinners. One night our table happened to include an entrepreneur who had married into one of the largest grill brands in the world. He knew the Grillworks name. Dad, seizing on his opportunity to close the final chapter, told him Grillworks was for sale. Cheap.

Horror twisted my gut.

"Dad. Wait."

And I had my answer.

Restarting Grillworks was far from an obvious career choice. Writers, professors, museum curators, lawyers, and artists dominate the Eisendrath family tree. To find ancestors who invented actual objects you have to look back a long way. And after his swashbuckling early career as a TIME foreign correspondent, Dad was perfectly content to "just" be a journalism professor. His personality and passion birthed the little grill company, but he (and he said this often) never wanted building grills to resemble work. And I was a liberal arts-educated technology exec—career maker of things you can't touch. Hardly the resume for a Grillworks phoenix to rise on.

But at last year's 60-strong family reunion, during a lecture about our entrepreneurial German ancestors, Dad looked around at the modern Eisendraths and leaned over to me with a look of wonder on his face. "Do you know you might be the only real businessman here?"

When you grow up with a family passion you form opinions about it. They pile up. You reach adulthood with a mountain of them: the "how it's done" things, "how it should've been done" things, and "that was idiotic" things. These could be about raising horses or competitive water skiing. Or they could be about designing open-fire grills. Given the right conditions—like watching their source offered to a stranger "cheap"—they cascade out. And the skills you picked up through actual education, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, shape the landslide into something you can use. Digital expertise transforms oily shop scribbles to 3-D renderings. Music event fliers become brochures. And thousands of hours of PowerPoint become "that was idiotic."

As a child I offered Dad awful model name suggestions at the dinner table. I am deeply, adult-ly relieved that he ignored me, but remain smug that one of those dumb names is now a large fast-food chain ("Dad, you have to call it the Sizzler!"). The suggestions got better, so today those "things," and countless other new ones, adorn the new Grillworks lineup—with Dad happily admiring from the peanut gallery.

People say follow your passion. I say do what comes out of you.

Image: Ben Eisendrath