Creating the ‘Ferrari of Grills’
After returning from living overseas in early 1970s, Charles Eisendrath went looking for a serious outdoor grill he could cook on at his vacation home near East Jordan, a farmhouse estate that had been in his family since the 1880s.
He quickly became disappointed with what he found.
“The designs seemed ridiculous,” he said. “They didn’t recover juices for basting. And the heat control was lousy. It seemed like a journalist could do this.”
But Eisendrath isn’t any journalist. A former Time magazine foreign correspondent, he had become enamored with the open-fire grills that used hardwoods as a heat source he experienced while working as Time’s bureau chief in Buenos Aires.
“I thought I could do better,” he said about the grills he saw in the United States.
Eisendrath started tinkering with prototypes, eventually settling on a rugged stainless steel grill with crank wheels used to raise or lower the grill grates over the open fire. Known as the Grillery, the unit also featured slightly angled, V-shaped grates that allow juices to run into a basting pan.
He initially planned to build just two, one for the farmhouse in East Jordan and one for his home in Ann Arbor. Eisendrath is the director of the University of Michigan’s Knight-Wallace Fellows, a mid-career study program for journalists, and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.
But Eisendrath’s foodie friends, who include retired NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, began clamoring for their own Grillerys.
He took a grill to New York to demonstrate it to legendary chef and cookbook author James Beard, who kept it and began showing it off to his friends in the food world.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can make this a company,’ ” Eisendrath said.
And so he did, using northern Michigan craftsmen to manufacture the grills, and enlisting his wife, Julia, as the treasurer. Thanks to Beard’s promotion of it, Eisendrath’s grill soon earned a reputation among foodies as one of the best on the market.
Bon Appetit magazine called it “the Ferrari of grills.”
The location of the company, called Grillworks, has long been a secret. To this day, Eisendrath and son Ben, who now runs the business, won’t say exactly where it is located.
Ben Eisendrath will only say that it operates somewhere near Ellsworth, where about 30 people manufacture the grills.
“We don’t tell people where it is because we don’t have a showroom and we don’t want people showing up and bothering the craftsmen who make the grills,” Ben Eisendrath said. “We build to order for everything.”
The company has a website, Grillery.com, where potential customers can view its products and inquire about ordering them.
It hasn’t always been easy to procure one of the grills, which today are priced from about $3,000 to more than $80,000 for commercial models used in restaurants.
The company started as a hobby for Eisendrath, who didn’t always promptly respond to those inquiring about his grills.
“He treated it like the crazy professor: ‘If you can find me, I’ll build you a grill,’” son Ben told the Washington City Paper in 2010.
As his duties at the University of Michigan became more pressing, Charles Eisendrath wound down Grillworks’ operations in the late 1990s. But his son wouldn’t let it die.
Ben, who was living in Washington, D.C., left his tech job at America Online in 2007 and started looking for a new passion.
He found it back at his family’s northern Michigan home, where several of his father’s grills remained in a barn on the property.
He considered manufacturing the grills closer to his home, but a discussion at a dinner party his dad hosted resulted in finding craftsmen who said they could again build them in northern Michigan.
“It’s great. I get to commune with my dad,” Ben Eisendrath said. “It all started with him. The heart and soul of the company is still in the system he created over the years.
“Now I can ask for his opinion and I don’t have to listen to it,” he said, jokingly.
Ben Eisendrath still lives in Washington, D.C, but spends much of his time on the road meeting with chefs and other potential customers. While chefs have a reputation for being egotistical and demanding, Eisendrath said he finds them to be engaging.
“It’s fantastic. I get to be a pyromaniac and talk to chefs, who to my surprise, are a lot of fun,” he said. “They’re super creative and have the same crazy ideas as we do.”
Grillworks sells about 300 grills a year, mostly to serious foodies and restaurants around the world.
There are several Grillworks installations in Michigan restaurants, including The Landing in Ironton, where Ben worked as a waiter when he was 17 years old, and Selden Standard, which was named Detroit’s restaurant of the year by the Detroit Free Press in 2015.
Andy Hollyday, a Selden Standard partner and executive chef, said he knew he had to have an Eisendrath grill for his restaurant after seeing one at an Oregon restaurant.
“They’re really cool,” Hollyday said. “We feel like this grill really helps to accent our local, seasonal fresh-food approach.”
Customers can enjoy watching their meat, vegetables and breads sizzling on the grill while sitting at the restaurant’s chef counter. Hollyday said it gives the entire restaurant, a warm, northern Michigan-style ambience.
“It brings back memories of being Up North at your cabin or camping when you were a kid,” he said. “We like that the grill is made by a Michigan company. We’re into all things local.”