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Portable Kitchen grill's revival stirring up nostalgia, owners say

Posted by Scott Moody on 28th Jun 2014

by Claire Boston

Fans of the Portable Kitchen, a grill and smoker assembled in Little Rock, are fervid about their love of the product.

They follow the company on Facebook and Twitter. They post Instagram photos of their latest rack of smoked ribs. And Scott Moody, who handles the company's marketing, said it's not uncommon for customers to call or email because they want to chat about how their first smoked chicken turned out.

"People will call to tell you they received their grill and will literally want to talk to you for 20 minutes about how excited they are," Moody said.

The Portable Kitchen is a favorite with charcoal barbecuers around the nation who prize the grill for what they call its superior smoking and durability. Founded in Tyler, Texas, in 1952, the company later moved to Little Rock and sold thousands of grills before a fire shut down production in the 1970s. A Little Rock attorney and his sister revived the company in the late 1990s. Since then, Portable Kitchens Inc. has seen steady growth and recently added three business partners.

As word spread about the grill's return, passionate customers -- many of whom remembered the grill from their youth or still had an old model -- had Paul and Martha James selling out around every major holiday. To help the company grow, the two called in businessmen Moody, Jeff Humiston and Brian Taylor. The five now share ownership of the company.

The three were executives at Allied Wireless but decided to take a break from the corporate world when AT&T acquired the company. They were looking for a small, local company whose product they believed in. Taylor, a brother-in-law of the Jameses, knew about Portable Kitchens. After considering other companies, the men decided to join the grill-maker after seeing the enthusiasm of the customer base.

"It's a proven product," Humiston said. "It's kind of rare when you're looking for something to be involved in that you can step into something with such a unique history."

Paul James had a legal mentor and a neighbor who raved about their vintage Portable Kitchens. He felt lucky when later he scored a 1950s-era grill at a yard sale. Although he's been practicing law for years, James said he "always wanted to make something" and start a business. Over the course of 18 months, he ended up buying the rights to the Portable Kitchen from Char-Broil and hunting down the original parts suppliers. The grill, made of recycled aluminum hand-poured into molds, is built from parts sourced from family-owned companies in the South and Midwest.

The first new grills were ready between 1999 and 2000. The day he plugged in the office phone -- but before grills were in production -- James got a call from a Texas retailer who was trying to track down new grates for a client with an original grill. Six months later, the grates were in production. The company still sells a number of parts, mostly grates, to customers with 50- and 60-year-old grills.

Because of sales on military bases in the 1950s and 1960s, old Portable Kitchen grills pop up all over the world. The company has shipped new grills as far as Denmark and Australia.

Taylor said the grill's longevity makes him excited about the future of the market. He said he's seeing consumers choose more expensive but longer-lasting products over cheaper ones that may only last a year or two. He said the popularity of organic and farm-to-table food has also made a new generation excited about cooking.

"'Buy-it-for-life' is a really growing trend," Taylor said. "People are willing to pay out of pocket more for something of value."

Early sales after the reboot were driven by charcoal aficionados and people familiar with the original product, but the Portable Kitchen has since gained more young fans. James said that with the addition of Humiston, Moody and Taylor, the company is exploring ways to introduce new products, including smaller and larger models.

Moody recently introduced an updated website and said he expects the company will add to its small staff in the coming year as demand grows. In the meantime, the company is renovating the office at its Shall Street warehouse. James' yard sale discovery sits above prototypes for a new product. A small section of the wall is a display of letters and yellowing photos from customers who shared their grilling memories.

Martha James said one of the favorite parts of her job is taking calls from customers, many of whom describe memories of family cookouts around old Portable Kitchens. She said she has fielded calls from divorced couples fighting over who keeps the grill and siblings who purchased additional grills after only one could take the grill left in a deceased father's estate. The stories behind the grills, she said, help make the product unique.

"It's about the product," she said. "[You don't call] about the refrigerator you've had for 30 years."

SundayMonday Business on 06/29/2014