Throw It on the
How an inexpensive grill pitched by an ex-boxer turned into a market knockout. By Robert Klara
One day in 1994, a box arrived at the Texas home of ex-heavyweight boxing champ George Foreman. The package was from an inventor named Michael Boehm, who’d sent his latest handicraft: an electric appliance he called the Short Order Grill.
Boehm had shipped the grill on a hunch: He knew the boxer had been known for scarfing down a couple of burgers before his bouts. He also knew that, since retiring from the ring, Foreman had found a new career as a TV pitchman (most recently for Meineke Mufflers). The grill needed a celebrity endorsement; was Foreman interested?
Foreman was not. At least, he wasn’t until his wife Joan began using the thing herself. “I’ve tried the grill, George, and I like it a lot,” she told him. “It works great; the meat comes out nice and juicy. The grease drips right off, and the food tastes really good.” To make her case, Joan Foreman cooked her husband a burger. George Foreman signed the papers.
Most Americans have never heard this story, though one could argue that it was history-making. Shortly after finding a manufacturer and appearing on late-night infomercials, the humble little appliance—rebranded as the George Foreman Grill—became a runaway hit. Five years after the grill’s 1995 debut, over 12 percent of U.S. homes already had one. By 2009, 55 million of the grills had sold. Today, that number’s closer to 100 million. And it’s still selling.
So what gives? How did this ordinary-looking countertop gizmo become one of the most successful kitchen appliances in U.S. history? Well, the price—$19.99 for the basic grill—surely didn’t hurt. And the American mania over fat was no small factor, either. When a smiling George Foreman first appeared on camera with his new product, he called it his “Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.” Laugh if you want, but it stuck.
The grill’s innovation was a pair of heating surfaces that were both grooved and canted at a slight angle to allow fat to drain off. And according to parent Spectrum Brands, it’s this feature—and the healthier eating it implies—that’s kept the Foreman in demand. “It’s simple,” said product marketing manager Katie Zagorski. “Our products continue to make grilling easier and healthier, making the brand a trusted favorite among consumers across generations.”
Well, sure. But the magic ingredient was always George Foreman, who successfully shook off his bad-boy image from the boxing ring to become the apron-wearing teddy bear of a man who wouldn’t steer you wrong. Foreman’s delivery was so integral to the grill’s success that his original deal with manufacturer Salton (which became part of Spectrum in 2010) gave him a 40 percent stake—and monthly checks in the neighborhood of $4.5 million. By 1999, Salton bought the rights to use Foreman’s name for a reported $127.5 million in cash and $10 million in stock.
In fact, so influential was Foreman’s personality that his name—featured prominently on the grill’s plastic cover—continues to sell the machines, even though Foreman himself stopped pitching them years ago. But according to his website, Foreman still uses the grill that bears his name. “My favorite thing to cook on the grill is salmon steaks,” he said, even for breakfast.
For help promoting his Short Order Grill, Michael Boehm contacted boxer-turned-pitchman George Foreman. Boehm had already secured a patent for the countertop machine, but what he really needed was a compelling endorser.
George Foreman shown pummeling Joe Frazier in 1976.
Foreman proved to be a champion as an endorser, and he pitched the renamed George Foreman Grill on infomercials (top). Other major appearances under his belt include the Tonight Show With Jay Leno in 1997 (bottom).
When The Office went off the air in 2013 after nine seasons, no roundup of the series’ best episodes failed to include “The Injury,” in which Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) burns his foot on a George Foreman Grill because, it emerges, he enjoys having breakfast in bed. When Michael got up that morning, he stepped on the machine and “it clamped down,” leaving grill marks on his foot—an injury that Pam (Jenna Fischer) tries to soothe by putting butter on it.