EAGLE COUNTY - Like many inventors, Jan Strauch was challenged by the old question: "Isn't there a better way to do this?" The result may change the way we think about barbecue grills.
Strauch's "isn't there a better way?" moment came a few years ago, after he'd inadvertently turned some steaks into beef-flavored briquettes. After the Friday night flare-up, Strauch - a lifelong tinkerer and inventor as well as the owner of Overland and Express Travel - started thinking and tinkering. By Sunday, he'd put together the first prototype of the Charless Grill. After that, Strauch started his own version of test-marketing, inviting friends over for Charless dinners.
In a 2010 story about the Charless Grill, Strauch didn't talk much about how the thing actually works. Now, after more than three years of patent searches, applications and numerous pitches to potential investors, the story can be told:
The Charless Grill surface starts off horizontal. A backyard chef places food on the surface, locks down the top and spins a handle that moves the grilling surface so it ends up positioned vertically between two heating surfaces, which can use either electricity, gas or charcoal.
Anything dripping from the food stays off the heating surfaces, eliminating flare-ups while retaining the diamond-shaped grill marks that make grilled food look delicious. It's still possible to burn food, Strauch said, but the nasty charring that's so common with brats, steaks or chops just won't happen.
While grill-blackened food is just about synonymous with grilling, the black stuff isn't good for you. Studies have found links to cancer and other diseases. That's part of the Charless pitch: This is healthy backyard cooking.
Strauch isn't the first person to think of vertical cooking, of course - a pop-up toaster cooks vertically. But, Strauch said, the Charless Grill's combination of features make it unique, which is why he applied for a patent.
That process is time-consuming and expensive - nearly four years after the initial application, Strauch expects his official notification to come in the next few weeks.
Also expensive is turning an idea that started with a cardboard model, and then sheet metal and screws, into a good-looking, high-end product that can do business in the U.S. market, which every year sells about 15 million grills - devices that "all do the same thing," Strauch said.
Bringing the Charless to market has required hiring multiple attorneys, engineers and designers.
"It's been very expensive," Strauch said. Recovering that investment, for both Strauch and his investors is going to take actually selling grills. Those sales will start early next year, most likely in California, which has a big chunk of the U.S. grill market and a lot of speciality stores that sell home and garden products.
Those shops for some time will be the only places consumers can buy a Charless Grill. First, it's a premium product. The predicted price is about $2,000. Still, Strauch said, "there are grills that cost $10,000."
Another reason to stay in the speciality shops is because those stores are more likely to have employees who will understand the system. The Charless could easily get lost in the rows of grills sold at big home-improvement chains, Strauch said.
So when might we see Charless Grills in the Vail Valley?
Strauch said the people who have had meals at his house - more than 100, at this point - will have a chance to buy a grill. So will investors - who will be able to buy at a discount.
Beyond that, though, the rest of us will have to wait and keep grilling with a spray bottle on the tool shelf to knock down those nasty flare-ups.
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or firstname.lastname@example.org.