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Beloved cult grill gets new life: Portable Kitchen of LR puts focus on slow growth.

The current owner of Portable Kitchen in Little Rock is likely younger than the grill that inspired his business, but that fact only strengthens his belief in his brand.

Paul James, 54, found his first cast-aluminum grill at a garage sale in the 1990s.

He recognized immediately the quarter-inch-thick, rustproof, silvery dome of the charcoal grill that had inspired the cult-like devotion of his uncles and a lawyer friend: the versatile grill that wouldn't die.

This particular garage sale grill was a Portable Kitchen model made in the 1950s in Tyler, Texas. As he cooked on his "PK," James realized that decades of use hadn't degraded its functionality. He also discovered that the company that created the outdoor grill had been sold in 1958, and the grills were subsequently manufactured near Little Rock.

Then, after about two decades in Arkansas and multiple ownership transitions, production of the brand ended and the final owner to produce it chose to focus instead on indoor cookware.

The Portable Kitchen's creator, Hilton Meigs of Beaumont, Texas, had discovered in 1952 that thick cast aluminum was lightweight, didn't melt and didn't rust and held heat better than steel. He made grills with a simple venting system and found that his aluminum cookers could grill quickly and evenly or smoke meats slowly, depending on how the vents were used.

James, who is a general litigation attorney in Little Rock, quickly saw business potential in the sturdy product and the loyalty of PK grillers who, like him, still used or remembered fondly the PKs sold in the past. Plus, there was an untapped younger generation that might want a charcoal grill that would last for decades and could eventually be passed on to grand-kids, he said.

James discovered that a gas-grill manufacturer, Char-Broil of Columbus, Ga., owned the Portable Kitchen brand name and the rights to the design with it, and wasn't planning to use them. The grill's early molds had disappeared.

James bougnr tne dormant name and rights from Char-Broil and recruited his sister, Martha James, to oversee the company so he could continue his law practice. Paul James hired the Regal Ware foundry in Jacksonville to make new molds from his original Texas model. It was the same company--still with some of the same employees--that made PK's early Arkansas molds.

James spent about $75,000 on the name, equipment and the permanent molds, which require molten aluminum to be ladled into them so the grills' thick walls won't crack.

The manufacturing work, once mainly done in Arkansas, is now spread across several states. Denco Aluminum of Girard, Kan., now does the castings; Hiwasse Manufacturing of Jacksonville makes the trays; Archer Wire International of Bedford Park, Ill., makes the cooking grids and charcoal grates; and Arkansas Bolt of Little Rock makes the nuts and bolts.

A part-time PK employee assembles the grills in Little Rock.

In 1998, Paul and Martha James began selling PK grills through specialty companies like L.L. Bean Inc. of Freeport, Maine, and hardware stores such as Kraftco Hardware & Building Supply on Cantrell Road in Little Rock. The brand name had stopped appearing on new grills about 18 years prior, and cheaper gas grills of the thin steel variety had overtaken the PKs in common use.

The distinctive, thick, Avery aluminum-bodied grill sembl had sold in the tens of thousands in the '50s and '60s, Martha James said. PK now sells 1,500-1,600 units annually.

Resurrecting a decades-gone brand has been a slow process for the Jameses.

"We're tiny because we have one model," Paul James said. "We don't have a big company backing us. It takes a lot to bring it back to the market"

The company's past 14 years have seen slow growth partially because James L is a full-time attorney and I because Martha James is PK's only full-time employee.

"We're doing what we're doing without a sales force" James said.

The company isn't profitable yet but should m become so within the next W two years, Paul James said. The company sells the grill on its website for $280 each and had sales of $350,000 in 2011. James would be interested in a business partnership, if the right one came along, he said.

His goal is to build up the company to offer a three-model product line and continue to sell spare parts, James said.

PK Lovers Rejoice

PK's revival brought the Jameses stories from grill owners who were eager for replacement grills or spare parts for the less durable features of the cooker--its cart, cart wheels, the wire cooking grid and the charcoal holding grate.

Paul and Martha James learned that PK grills survived the Vietnam War alongside American soldiers, and one PK grill served for a time as a flower pot for a woman who, for years, couldn't find a replacement cooking grid for sale.

Paul Shell, a PK grill owner from North Little Rock, voiced the customer loyalty James has learned to expect. Shell, 52, is plant inspection and quarantine manager for the Arkansas State Plant Board.

"My main grill is my FK. That's what I use. That's my go-to grill," Shell said. "I have the nostalgia of growing up with it, and then to know it's a local product that's so good. Plus, I like the way it cooks and it's predictable. I know how my food's going to turn out, because it's very consistent."

Devotees from Arkansas, Ohio, Virginia and points beyond have posted photos of their PK culinary creations on the Portable Kitchen Charcoal Grill & Smoker fan page on Facebook.

A nearly 60-year-old model still cooks twice a week for its inventor's son, 69-year-old Doug Meigs of Houston.

"There just wasn't anyone building barbecue pits at the time," Doug Meigs said last week. His father, Hilton Meigs, was a carpenter and head of a homebuilding company who thrived in the Texas housing boom that followed World War II, Meigs said. At the age of 37, Hilton Meigs dropped home building for a new enterprise.

At the time, people made their own outdoor grills out of pipes and barrels, Meigs said, but his father came up with a rustproof, lightweight aluminum design and spent about nine years selling the grills, often from the back of a car.

While the PK grill sold successfully for $79.95 apiece, Hilton Meigs' business struggled due to the expense of making the grills and delays in getting paid once the cookers were sent to dealers.

"He was shipping the barbecue pits all over the world [and had] cash-flow problems constantly," Meigs said. Hilton Meigs sold the business to Lewis Hamlin, who moved the operation to Arkansas.

About three dozen retailers in Arkansas carry PK grills. Kraftco Hardware, which is as much a throwback as the grills, carried original Portable Kitchens before production wound down, and now carries them again.

"When they went back into production, they wanted dealers. We were more than happy to sell PK grills," Kraftco owner is-Dick Bona said. "When you sell customers one of those, you've done 'em a good turn, if you will. You've sold them something that's an excellent product that they're going to have forever."

By Kate Knable
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Title Annotation:Portable Kitchen in Little Rock
Author:Knable, Kate
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Feb 27, 2012
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