Tinkering gives rise to specialty grills - 05/24/01
Tinkering gives rise to specialty grills
Detroit's Grill King creates custom-made cookers for best meat

Rachanee Therakulsathit / The Detroit News

Robert Felton, owner of Detroit's Grill King, sells about 450-500 of his self-made grills a year.

Barbecue season
   What: Detroit's Grill King
   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/
By Maureen McDonald / Special to The Detroit News

    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.
   Felton, 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.
   For one 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.
   He 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.
   Detroiters started 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.
   Felton keeps tinkering. He recently gained a U.S. patent on the concrete pan he uses to keep the heat inside the grill.
   A specialized 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 writer.