PK Grills: Reigniting America's Passion for Simple Barbecue

Hard Work Pays Off in Arkansas: The PK Grill Story
Hard Work Pays Off in Arkansas: The PK Grill Story

For Paul James, grilling has always been about more than making a meal. It's about family.

The Little Rock, Arkansas, lawyer remembers dozens of relatives gathering in his Uncle Tag's backyard in Memphis, Tennessee, where the sweet smell of barbecue often filled the smoky air. The families were large -- James is the second oldest of 11 children -- so dinners that started indoors often spilled over into the yard as the grilling got going.

Every family member had a twist on barbecue, but Uncle Tag's technique was legendary. It started with a special aluminum charcoal grill he used to prepare his signature fall-off-the-bone pork shoulder and melt-in-your-mouth hamburgers.

Sleek and silver, the simple design of Tag's trusty PK Grill -- the PK stands for Portable Kitchen -- didn't have the bells and whistles of today's modern versions. It had just four vents -- two on top and two on the bottom -- to create an outdoor convection oven. This allowed backyard chefs to grill meats quickly at high heats or smoke them slowly all day. All it took for Uncle Tag to cook a perfect meal was simply adjusting the interior airflow.

James remembered his uncle's grill so fondly that when he saw one at a Little Rock garage sale almost 30 years later in the mid-1990s, he bought it on the spot. He paid just $25, and soon friends and family would reminisce at every cookout about the grills being handed down from one generation to the next. They'd even tell tales of them being the subject of divorce and estate disputes.

But they also wondered why it was impossible to buy a new PK Grill, as it seemed they'd slipped out of production some time in the 1970s.

James never could come up with a good answer to that question. So he decided to reignite PK Grills himself.

Chapter 1: Back to Life

James, now 58, is a lawyer by training and trade, so when he decided to research PK Grills' rise and fall, he focused on it like an attorney putting a case together for trial.

He discovered that PK Grills had passed through a number of hands, including cookware manufacturers Regal Ware and then Sunbeam. Both big companies had made PK Grills in Little Rock until it no longer fit their business models. In the 1970s production stopped, and none of the original molds survived.

But James did discover that Char-Broil, based in Columbus, Georgia, had bought the business' intellectual property as well as the Portable Kitchen name.

James put his legal skills to use, negotiating with Char-Broil to buy the PK name. Then he crafted an agreement with Regal Ware to create new molds, working with one of its employees who remembered making the original grills. Together, they reverse engineered the design and created a new production process.

Next James had to find suppliers for the other parts of the grill -- grates, handles, stands, vent controls, etc., Determined to make everything for the new PK Grill company with materials crafted in America, he looked for manufacturers close to Little Rock.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-This country can't lose its ability to make and produce products. There are other people employed because of what we do. %"This country can't lose its ability to make and produce products," he says of his dedication to making things in America. "There are other people employed because of what we do."

Despite James passion for PK, he was still paying the bills by running his law office. To keep his two work lives separate, James rented a small office space from a friend, got a new phone number, and plugged the phone in at what he jokingly called PK World Headquarters.

Within a half hour, the phone rang.

"Oh, I'm so glad to find you," James remembers the relieved voice on the other end of the line saying.

Startled, James figured someone had the wrong number. "Who are you looking for?" he asked.

But the customer was, in fact, looking for James. He'd found the brand-new PK Grill phone number through a directory assistance call. The resurrected company's first customer was calling from Beaumont, Texas, and he needed replacement parts for an aging, but beloved, grill.

Though James hadn't yet made a grill, much less located replacement parts, he took down the customers' information and gave him what was soon to be a standard response: "We're working on it."

Chapter 2: No Two Grills the Same

At that point, there was no "we" in PK Grills, and James needed help fast. So he called his sister, Martha James, 46, in Washington, D.C., where she had worked in political offices and marketing for years. He'd reached out before with ideas for other businesses and Martha had always declined. Either the business, or the timing, didn't feel right.

<b class="credit">Credit: Elizabeth Allen</b>The PK Grill: a sleek and simple design.
Credit: Elizabeth AllenThe PK Grill: a sleek and simple design.

This time, she says, was different. Like her brother, Martha remembered the backyard parties and distinctive-looking grills. Plus, she was intrigued that the company was already fielding phone calls from potential customers.

And honestly, she was ready for a shift closer to home and further from politics. "Grills don't talk," she jokes. "And nobody loves their politicians like they love their grills."

She moved to Little Rock in 1998 and got plenty of practice repeating the "we're working on it" mantra as the business moved from that small office with a phone and an answering machine to a space where the different pieces of the grill could all be combined, packaged and shipped: an 8,000-square foot warehouse not far from the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock.

At first the company sold grills and replacement parts through a handful of small retailers around the country and via the Internet. Its first big break occurred when L.L. Bean featured the iconic PK Grill in its catalog.

As PK's only full-time employee, Martha has built every aspect of the business. She manages inventory, coordinates production and takes orders. She also listens to hours of stories about PK Grills. She sorts through unprompted pictures and letters grill owners send to the company Some are in search of a grate or a handle. All of them love their grills.

"We try to help everyone keep them going," she says. "We know how good they are."

That's because right behind her office, the grills take shape in the warehouse where Avery Allen puts the parts together. Allen pulls in pallets of shrink-wrapped and shiny grill shells shipped from a foundry just a few hours' drive from Little Rock. He carefully checks each one, and If it doesn't meet his standards, he sends it back.

Every shell starts as molten aluminum, which is poured by hand into a permanent mold, an exacting practice no longer common in the U.S. In fact, the first two foundries that supplied PK Grills with the shells have since gone out of business. Because of the production process, no two grills are the same. But they all have to seal perfectly.

"I think that's the secret of our grill," Paul James says.

It's also what makes grill production labor-intensive and expensive.

Allen, 46, inspects and smooths every PK Grill, thousands of them now, in greater quantities every year, then screws in vent switches and sands off any remaining rough edges.

He does all this after he puts in a full shift as a bus driver for nearby schools. Allen remembers one 24-hour period when he returned to the warehouse after school to finish putting together 140 grills.

PK Grills, which retail for $299.99, now sell online and in 59 retailers in 23 states from New Jersey to Washington.

By 2013, as orders kept increasing and the parts supply chain got more complicated, the James siblings realized that they needed help to turn what started as a hobby for Paul into something bigger, something sustainable.

"I wanted partners," he says.

Chapter 3: The 62-Year-Old Startup

To keep PK growing, Paul and Martha James turned to family again for help -- and it happened after a barbecue.

Brian Taylor got his first exposure to a PK Grill when he was dating the James' sister, Shannon. He not only fell in love with the grill, he fell in love with the girl. For a long time, he was simply a trusted adviser as the brother and sister vetted potential partners.

At the time, Taylor, 38, was considering what to do next after working at Alltel, a cellphone company that was once a primary employer in Little Rock. The company had changed hands and shifted focus. So Taylor and two colleagues, Jeff Humiston, a lawyer, and Scott Moody, a marketing pro, decided they wanted to join forces and stay in the town where they were raising their families.

They faced a choice: continue to work in the corporate world, managing hundreds of employees and millions of dollars, or take a more entrepreneurial path.

"I've always spent a lot of time fantasizing about what it would be like to start something small from scratch," Taylor says.

PK Grills offered the three men a different kind of opportunity -- one that none of them expected, but all of them embraced.

<b class="credit">Credit: Elizabeth Reeves</b>Employee Avery Allen fashions a grill at PK Grills' plant in Little Rock, Ark.
Credit: Elizabeth ReevesEmployee Avery Allen fashions a grill at PK Grills' plant in Little Rock, Ark.

So in the spring of 2014, Taylor, Humiston and Moody officially became partners in PK Grills. Instead of suits and ties, they come to work in T-shirts and flip-flops and set up their laptops at one plain, long table in the front room of the cavernous warehouse.

"In a lot of ways, this is being executed like a startup," says Moody, 43 -- but it's a start-up that has 62 years of heritage. That thought inspired Moody as he redesigned the PK Grill website. Prominently displayed on the site are stories and photos submitted by grill owners because, after all, the stories of these grills are best told by the people who own them.

One big problem the "startup" is currently tackling centers around the grills' quality -- specifically that it's almost too good. PK Grills don't wear out -- it's a reason owners love them so much. So the three men are playing around with different types of paints, colors and even sizes of grills to attract new customers. And to expand PK Grill's offerings, they also launched a line of accessories, from grill sets and roasting racks to T-shirts and ball caps,.

The plan is to build an infrastructure that could handle exponential growth by the end of the year, which judging by this year's sales isn't unthinkable. Sales in May 2014 exceeded sales in May 2013 by 70 percent.

Building that infrastructure in America won't necessarily be easy. The grills are expensive to produce and are particularly time-consuming to build. That makes production hard to scale.

They could follow the advice they've often heard and "go to China." But none of the family nor the extended community that forms PK Grills -- from Allen who builds the grills to the former corporate executives who are wrestling with the future -- are willing to give up being able to stamp "Made in America" on the box.

"In a lot of ways, we are putting a stake in the ground, saying this is built in America," Moody says. "Right now, it's a little trendy. Five to 10 years from now, I hope people still see the value. That's been the legacy of the grill from the beginning."

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Originally published