The Long View: A Better Barbecue

Ken Mergentime is the former executive editor of Sign & Digital Graphics and WRAPS magazines.

When I became a first-time home owner—oh, these many years ago—I wanted to explore the joys of backyard barbecue cooking. Being young and broke, the only thing I could afford was a grill I found at a yard sale for $25. It was an old Weber kettle grill with a bit of a dent in the lid and a missing wooden handle, but it was of sound design and had a cool-looking maroon porcelain-enamel finish.

Still, my learning curve as a barbecue chef was steep, and I soon found that I disliked the taste of starter fluid in my hamburger, so later I acquired a chimney starter that only required a few wads of newspaper and a match to get the coals going. I was soon grilling everything from ahi tuna steaks and bone-in pork chops to shrimp shish kebobs and spareribs. I reveled in the mysteries of exotic marinades, spicy dry rubs and interesting basting sauces. I had that grill for about 15 years—until one fine spring afternoon when it literally fell apart on my patio as I was moving it from the garage.

I did some research in Consumer Reports and opted for the beautiful gas grill I’d been ogling at the hardware store. Yes, it was a relatively big investment, but the advantages were many: no more smoke-filled yard from the newspapers in my chimney gadget, no more waiting 30 minutes for the coals to be ready, no more messy ashes to deal with, no more coal at all. My stainless steel grill has four burners, an electric starter, independently adjustable flames, a rugged iron cooking grate, a warming rack and a nifty side-burner.

For me the ROI of that extravagant purchase was immediate and personally fulfilling. It opened the door to a whole new world of backyard culinary excellence, and, at the same time, challenged me to learn new ways of doing things. As I have learned to take advantage of the features and efficiencies of the unit, my grilling abilities have skyrocketed.

All this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with the business of signage or large-format graphics production, but there is a clear analogy that perhaps needs to be considered. Many shops, when they first open, tend to invest in older, functional used equipment in order to get started. They learn the ropes, make the most of their equipment and their businesses grow.

But there inevitably comes a time when the old equipment just won’t cut it anymore. It may not cease to function, as my poor kettle grill; it may simply have become so completely outmoded that, in order to remain competitive, an upgrade is required.

Whatever the reason, do the research, weigh the benefits against the costs and see how the investment fits with your business plan. And once you have the new, higher-production unit up and running, you quickly will see how it is improving your bottom line. You’re better at what you do, happier and, hopefully, more profitable.

As an aside, my brother is a diehard charcoal and wood-fire guy. He barbecues with an elaborate two-level barrel grill he made from a 55 gallon drum. He claims I’ve gone over to the dark side with my gas grill. But I’m happy. I’ve increased my throughput by more than 75 percent, cut my labor and production time by a clear margin, nearly doubled the number of dishes I'm able to make, and I’ve even become a “greener” griller by eliminating waste and air pollution. Food for thought.

Okay, back to work.