Arriving In Chicago
On August 24-25, 2008, I had the pleasure of visiting Weber's corporate offices in Palatine, IL to meet with staff to discuss the new 2009 22.5" Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker and related topics.
On August 24, I was greeted at the airport in Chicago by Ernie Boys (Photo 1), VP of Product Management for Weber charcoal grills. He got me settled into my hotel near the office, and then took me out for a wonderful dinner at The Weber Grill Restaurant in nearby Schaumburg.
During the drive from the airport to the hotel, Ernie informed me that we would be barbecuing at the office the next day. This was news to me! Very cool, but kind of nerve-wracking at the same time! We consulted on a menu of baby back ribs and beer can chicken, and Ernie took care of all the prep and marinating of meat that evening at home. What a great guy!
Early the next morning, Ernie picked me up at the hotel and drove me to the office. He had setup an 18.5" WSM and 22.5" WSM on the patio in front of the office. My first task was to fire-up those cookers using the Minion Method, and we got the meat on in short order. You can read more about how lunch turned out at the end of this article.
Once we had the cookers going, I had meetings throughout the morning with members of the packaging design team, the smoker R&D team, and several product managers for the smoker and for accessories. We discussed a wide variety of topics related to the new 18.5" and 22.5" Smokey Mountain Cookers, as well as some discussion about the smoker market segment in general.
During these meetings, Weber's staff shared information that clarified and corrected some of the issues I raised in the videos I made when unpacking and assembling the new 22.5" smoker for the first time. After my visit, I made another short video to document these items, including minor tweaks to product packaging, comments about the fit of component parts, and Weber's take on safety issues related to the heat shield and adding handles to various parts of the cooker.
During my visit, I got an inside look at how the product packaging was developed and tested to ensure it not only meets, but exceeds many times over, the standards of the shipping industry. Weber clearly understood that the packaging of the 1980's was not sufficient in 2008, given that the box passes through so many hands on its journey from factory to front porch. They put a lot of thought and engineering into the new packaging design and materials to ensure that the product has the best chance of arriving in good shape, whether it's shipped right side up, upside down, or on its side. They even figured out a way to prevent the vent dampers from being crushed during shipping, something I had not noticed before and that I explained in my last video. And more good news...all of the packaging is easily recycled.
Product Features, Glitches & Future Improvements
After packaging, the conversation shifted to R&D. We spent some time talking about the glitches I noted in my videos, including the way the charcoal grate sits in the bowl, the loose vent damper, and the out of round condition. Weber understood these issues and was considering options to address each of them. Based on our discussions, I am hopeful that we may see better consistency in the way parts fit together. We'll see what happens.
The Weber staff asked me a lot of questions about what I liked about the new 22.5" design and why. They asked me why this new 22.5" unit would appeal to all of you. I mentioned cooking capacity, flexibility to cook larger items or items in different configurations (like slabs of ribs flat on the grate), and the fact that they had addressed some of the most obvious missing features and niggling problems.
We also had a chance to discuss some of the other missing features that many of you have commented about and why you want them, like a probe thermometer eyelet and handles on the middle cooking section and on the bottom cooking grate. As I suspected, these kinds of handles are features that Weber does not want to add for safety reasons. They do not want to tempt you to remove the middle cooking section or the bottom cooking grate during operation.
I offered a few suggestions for additional improvements, like a thermometer with a higher temperature range, some indication of the halfway point between the large 50°F increments on the dial, the idea of the cooker coming in different colors, putting the WSM on wheels with a work table like the Performer, and some other ideas that I can't go into here (I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement) but ideas that could potentially add interest, fun, and functionality to the smoker product line. Oh, and I mentioned the leaky vinyl cover! I asked if there was a way they could design it so the seams fall below the edge of the lid. It would be great if they put some energy into solving this issue.
Updated Owner's Manual
Another bit of news is that Weber will be delivering an updated owner's manual. It will contain operating instructions that are more similar to the techniques we use today, like the Minion Method, and all of the recipes will be updated. It looks like there will be more emphasis on smoking instructions and less emphasis on little-used configurations like steaming that are described in the old manual. I encouraged them to try, at least in a basic way, to explain some of the factors that affect cooker performance, including sun vs. shade, wind, volume of meat and water used, type and amount of charcoal used, etc., and to make sure that they point out all of the great features of the product, some of which may not be self-evident, like the benefits of the heat shield.
About The Heat Shield
So let's talk about the new heat shield for a moment. Turns out that it works by creating an insulating layer of air between the bowl and the aluminum shield to protect your deck, patio, lawn, etc. The interesting thing is that it also causes more heat energy to stay inside the cooker, so there should be marginally better cooker performance as a side benefit of the shield. Who knew?
Regarding the fact that the heat shield cannot be removed after assembly, this is intentional. Since it is considered a safety feature, Weber does not want you removing it, forgetting to put it back, having it fall out by accident, etc. They don't believe it will catch ashes or get clogged with debris during use or storage. We'll see over time.
Toward the end of my visit, we had a wide-ranging discussion about the kinds of accessories I use when barbecuing with the WSM, and they asked questions about specific accessories and if they would be of interest to folks like us. The Weber folks were coy about their plans in this area, but I got the feeling they have a few tricks up their sleeves, so we'll just have to wait and see what they do.
As far as availability goes, full-scale production of the new smokers will begin in October 2008 and they’ll start shipping to retailers after that. However, Weber has no control over when retailers will begin selling. Many retailers are so focused on the traditional Christmas selling season that they don’t start thinking about barbecues until January. So it will be interesting to see where and when the new products pop-up first.
Amazing Grill Collection Around The Office
Our meetings were held in a conference room that was once George Stephen's office. It was chock-full of his mementos, photos, and memorabilia. Quite a place, it impressed the heck out of me. The spirit of George Stephen and the feeling of Weber history were all around you in that amazing space.
Oh, and did I mention all the old and new Weber grills and advertising and memorabilia throughout the building? An original 1952 kettle sits in the lobby. Turn the corner and you run into a big, beautiful, 6-burner, top-of-the-line Summit. Nearby is an old red kettle with metal handles and rubber tires. The next jaw-dropping site is The Westerner from 1958, with steer horns painted on the side. I even saw a few decorated grills, including one painted like a big, juicy hamburger with all the fixin's. I felt like a kid in a candy shop!
Smoking In The Shadow Of George Stephen's Original Backyard Grill
Now, back to barbecuing in front of the office. Throughout the morning, we took a few short breaks to go outside and check on the cookers. They ran steady as can be, of course. That's what Weber Bullets do.
The patio in front of the office was a lovely spot, beautifully landscaped and setup with a few tables, chairs and umbrellas. Most incredibly, off to one side, was the original brick patio barbecue built by George Stephen himself. This big brick and mortar structure had been removed from the backyard of his home in Mount Prospect, IL and reassembled right there at Weber HQ. It was an unbelievable sight!
By lunchtime, the ribs and chickens were finished and we took them out of the cookers. To my great relief, everything turned out just right. The whole staff gathered around to enjoy some delicious WSM barbecue (Photos 2-3). What a memorable experience it was!
During lunch, it was my great honor to meet "The Father of the WSM", Erich Schlosser (Photo 4). Erich is the Senior Project Engineer for R&D and knows all about the origins of the WSM. He peppered me with questions about the 22.5" smoker. Did they get it right? What will people think of it? Was the second handle on the edge of the lid a good idea? Do they need to make a bigger smoker? I could have spent all afternoon talking to him about the WSM.
I asked Erich about the history and background of the Weber Bullet. He said that the inspiration behind the WSM was his boyhood memories of his German father cold-smoking meat. However, the smoker Erich wanted to create would be a hot-smoker, not a cold-smoker.
Unfortunately, back in the late 1970's and early 80's, there was no budget to build a smoker from scratch, so Erich cobbled together a prototype using existing parts from other Weber grills. For the 18.5" WSM lid and charcoal bowl, he used two charcoal bowls from the 18.5" kettle grill. For the water pan, he used the lid from a Smokey Joe. The door knob and latch were "off-the-shelf" parts from the local hardware store. The only pieces that had to be specially fabricated were the bottom cooking grate, the charcoal grate and charcoal chamber, and the door, legs, and grill straps.
Somehow Erich convinced Weber to bring these "Frankensteined" cookers to market in 1981. I asked him what ever happened to the 14.5" WSM Model 1880, a smaller version of the 18.5" WSM Model 2880 that also came out in 1981. "I don't think the marketing folks promoted it very well," said Erich. The Model 1880 was discontinued in 1983 after just two years of lackluster sales.
I also had the opportunity to meet Ben Stephen (Photo 5), a big WSM fan himself and frequent visitor to TVWB. Ben had a 22.5" WSM prototype at home and was cooking on it extensively. We compared notes on how to fire-up the cooker and how it operated versus the 18.5" model. I also had the privilege of meeting executives Jim Stephen and Mike Kempster during the course of my day at Weber.
Before you knew it, all the meetings were over, all the food had been eaten, and it was time to catch a ride back to the airport. All in all, it was a great experience for me and I think both parties got a lot out of the meeting. I hope it's just the beginning of a continuing dialog with Weber about their smoker products. The one thing that is clear to me as a result of this visit is that Weber is listening to your comments, compliments, and complaints on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board. Weber is paying attention and that's a good thing.
Special thanks to Sherry Bale (Photo 6), Director of Public Relations, for coordinating my trip to Palatine.
It's now May 2014, and I wanted to give you an update on this article.
A number of things I discussed with Weber have come to pass in the six years since my visit. A probe thermometer grommet has been added to the WSM and handles have been added to the bottom cooking grate. Weber has greatly expanded their accessories product line to include many items we discussed, but that I was unable to mention at the time due to the non-disclosure agreement. New flavors of smoke wood chunks, probe thermometers, pocket thermometers, a way to hang meat in the WSM, new poultry roasters, bear claws, barbecue mops, and basting brushes are just a few examples.
What hasn't changed? We still don't have handles on the middle cooking section. You still can get any color you want, as long as it's black. We still have problems with the fit of the access door on the 22.5" WSM. And we don't have a Performer treatment for the WSM. But who knows...hope springs eternal.
What's happened in the past six years that I did not expect? The explosive interest in the Smokey Joe Mini WSM Project on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board, leading to the reintroduction of the 14.5" WSM Model 711001 in late 2013. Never saw that one coming.
As I look back on this article, the other thing I notice is the lack of photos. Back in 2008, I didn't have a smartphone with a camera, but I did have a digital camera. I'm not sure if I didn't think to bring it (hard to believe) or if I was prohibited from taking photos. I'm thinking it was the latter, because the few photos you see here were taken by Weber and provided to me after the visit.
I tried to arrange a factory tour as a follow-up to this visit. I was told by Public Relations that this was no problem, that it was just a matter of scheduling a tour when WSMs were actually being manufactured. Sadly, I was informed a few months later that the Weber family had discontinued factory tours due to sensitivities about new manufacturing technologies and techniques. Maybe someday.
In hindsight, the part of the day I cherish most was talking with Erich Schlosser, a truly remarkable man to whom we WSM fans owe so much. TVWBB member David Somerville has written a wonderful article chronicling the many patents of Erich Schlosser, the brains behind so many Weber charcoal and gas grill innovations. It's fun to read about how the patents reflect the changes in design and troubleshooting of these products over the years.
As for my hopes for a continuing dialog with Weber, after a long, dry spell, there have been a few occasions recently. Weber graciously provided TVWB with a 14.5" WSM Model 711001 to evaluate when that cooker came out in 2013, and I provided written feedback. I was also invited to participate in a Thanksgiving WSM Twitter event in November 2013. Hopefully we'll have more opportunities to stay connected in the months and years ahead.
Photos of Weber visit: 2008 Weber-Stephen Products LLC.