rise to specialty grills
King creates custom-made cookers for best meat
Maureen McDonald / Special to The Detroit
Therakulsathit / The Detroit
Robert Felton, owner of
Detroit's Grill King, sells about 450-500 of his self-made
grills a year.
Specialty: Robert Felton
and his family build custom barrel barbecue grills for home and
commercial use with names like Big Daddy, Big Bertha and Super
Something Special. Grills range from $85 to $1,300.
Contact: (313) 221-0617 or http://www.detroitgrillking.com/
DETROIT -- The blues band is jumping at Memphis
Smoke, a ribs and blues bar in Royal Oak, and Robert Felton is passing
out business cards to the beat of the singer's tune, "Barbecue Baby."
"Once you've tasted tenderloin on one of my grills
you won't want it no other way," says Felton. He and his wife, Theresa,
and a four-member staff, construct up to 400 custom barrel grills a year
in the back yard of their Detroit home.
45, hustles. Gaining practical knowledge from a copy of Guerrilla
Marketing, he learned to circulate his card at blues functions, plaster
printed signs on intersections, and earned Channel 7's distinction of
being one of the best grill builders in the city in 1991.
"Whatever kind of barrel grill you want, I'll make
it. Tell me what you like to cook, I'll show you how to do it better,"
says Felton, whose garage, alley and spare lot are filled with barrels,
machinery parts and samples of his trade.
client he'll retrofit a bakery lard barrel, add some legs and a grill
and sell it for under $80. For the ribs aficionado he'll sell the $1,100
Big Daddy, with drop bottoms for easy cleaning, two steak fryer racks,
four-way spin wheels, concrete liner, chimney and warming racks. "I love
it," says Mary Watkins, who owns one of Felton's first Big Daddy's.
"I like the way mine lets the smoke through the
meat and the warming department to put the cooked meat. Whenever I have
a party, people tell me I make the best meat," she said.
The love of tinkering led Felton to his current
career. He was newly laid off from a Chrysler plant in 1983 when he
spied a gaggle of barrels discarded on a loading dock at Northland. He
asked around, found they were used to display clothes -- not carry
chemicals -- and he took them home.
experimented with various types of grills, learning welding so he could
become more proficient. His new skill helped him earn a living while the
grill business fired up -- he worked another 10 years in an autobody
shop as a custom welder.
Felton's welding skills
helped him fashion rolled steel into barrels, instead of using
reconditioned ones from a barrel supplier. He makes sure he knows the
source of barrels or steel because traces of chemicals can make them
hazardous for cooking.
converting barrels to grills in the early 1970s, Felton said, because
the griller was able to get the fire away from the meat, retaining the
moisture and making it more tender.
tinkering. He recently gained a U.S. patent on the concrete pan he uses
to keep the heat inside the grill.
chimney lets the smoke out and keeps the flavor in. A drop bottom sends
the ash into a specially built bucket for easy cleaning.
He demonstrates each facet with a flourish. "I
enjoy cooking for customers."
Maureen McDonald is a Metro Detroit free-lance