Anatomy of a Classic

How This Timeless Charcoal Grill Ended up in Your Backyard

This is a story of what happens when you mix a father of twelve hungry kids with a metal buoy. As you probably know quite well, there’s no better way to inaugurate the summer season than with a barbecue. That’s a tradition that began in the early fifties when, with the rise of suburban living post-WWII, Americans were grilling more and more. The only problem? The open-pit braziers they relied on didn’t get the job done very well. George A. Stephen had one such set up in his own Chicago ‘burbs backyard and felt frustrated by the uneven heat distribution, copious smoke, and flavor loss. At the time, he was working for a metal parts company called Weber Brothers. While fabricating steel buoys, inspiration struck. He cut one in half, added a grill rack, and gave his new invention some legs. But back at home, his grill didn’t work as planned. Then a neighbor leaned over the fence and offered a suggestion: cut some holes in it so the fire can get continuous oxygen. That did the trick—Stephen had created a grill good enough to turn out more than a dozen perfectly cooked burgers (for those dozen kids) without too much hassle.

His neighbor teasingly referred to his 1952 creation as “Sputnik,” but the demand for the dome-shaped grill was no joke. Orders grew so quickly that Stephen started a barbecue division at Weber—before buying out the company entirely. As grills got more elaborate, Weber’s simple model still held its own. Esquire called the Weber grill “the perennial workhorse of the American backyard” and suggested it’s the perfect first grill since “no serious home grilling can be done comfortably without one.” And it’s built to last: “It may even have a wheel missing or some fossilized spareribs lying somewhere amid the half-burned coals that litter its bottom,” food writer Josh Ozersky noted in Esquire of the quintessential well-used Weber. It’s not just home-cooking experts who love the thing, though. “Weber is the Honda of grilling,” the award-winning chef Dan Kluger said a few years ago. “Very consistent and reliable.”

Of course, it’s not just the dudes who get in on the grilling fun. Callers to the company’s hotline have pretty good odds of getting BBQ whiz Janet Olson on the line—and in fact, when The New York Times visited the Weber Hotline Center (which answers half a million calls annually) in 2011, they found it mostly staffed by women. At that point, Olson had been on the job for over a decade but still routinely heard from callers insisting they needed to talk to a guy. She tells ‘em she can help, and, if they’re particularly upset by whatever grilling disaster they’re facing, says, “You might want to grab a beer—and just listen for a while.”