This 90-Year-Old Electric Grill Company Is Enjoying Newfound Fame–Thanks to the World Series-Winning Boston Red Sox
Connecticut-based Kenyon Grill is a 90-year-old business with a winding history and a lucrative partnership with America’s best baseball team.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Just one thing would have made Phillip Williams, president and co-owner of Kenyon Grill, happier than the Boston Red Sox's World Series win this year. That is if it had occurred at home. Williams' company makes the team's official grill, and the first base-side deck at Fenway Park is plastered with its signs. Fans chomp burgers and fries under Kenyon-logoed umbrellas.
Kenyon makes fast-heating electric grills, in both portable and built-in models. The company has seen grill sales increase 60 percent since the partnership with the Red Sox kicked off in the spring. In addition to Fenway visitors, hundreds of thousands have seen its ads on Boston's regional sports network or watched Williams' son, who is chief marketing officer, interviewed during games. "We've gotten feedback from all over the country," Williams says. "It has been very, very rewarding and definitely paid for itself."
Kenyon's newfound fame among Red Sox Nation culminates nearly 90 years of product invention and business reinvention. In that time the company, founded by a prolific inventor and his daredevil pilot wife, churned out air and marine instruments used by the military; camera stabilizers used by adventuresome journalists; and elegant cooktops used everywhere from yachts to senior communities.
Kenyon, which employs roughly 50 people, is based in Clinton, Connecticut, a blue-collar town once home to manufacturers like cold-cream-maker Chesebrough-Ponds. It is among the few factories left, operating out of a steel shell building about a mile from Long Island Sound. Inside, engineers flip burgers on testing days, which are frequent. The staff enjoys a lot of free lunches.
Kenyon Grill employees in their Clinton, Connecticut factory. CREDIT: Courtesy Kenyon Grill
Kenyon releases two or three new products a year and has experienced a 900 percent increase in patents since Williams and some friends bought the company in 1996. It sells direct online and through retailers like Amazon and Wayfair, with prices starting at $475. Next year the company will release a model--now in stealth mode--that will top out at $4,000.
The grills account for 35 percent of revenues, a proportion that's growing rapidly. Roughly 15 percent of sales are marine products, which is where the business started. Much of the rest is cooktops, many of them installed in extended-stay hotel chains for customers like Marriott and Hilton.
Jon Lewis, of nearby Chester, Connecticut, cooks every other week on a Kenyon indoor electric grill, which he decided he needed after shoveling a path through 18 inches of snow to access his gas grill. For Lewis the attraction of the product is twofold: it is American-made and truly smokeless. "Some friends didn't believe it could be smokeless so I brought it up to their house to cook steaks, says Lewis. "They were as amazed as I am every time I use it."
The inventor and the aviatrix
The Kenyon legacy began with a barnstorming romance. Theodore "Ted" Kenyon, a pilot for Colonial Airlines and friend of Albert Einstein, married Cecil "Teddy" Kenyon in 1926. Three years later Teddy earned her pilot's license, becoming one of the first female aviators and a champion competitive flyer. Teddy tested Ted's products in airplanes and, later, in helicopters.
Ted Kenyon launched Kenyon Instrument Inc. in South Boston in the late 1920s, designing and making speedometers and gyroscopes for boats and planes. An avid sailor, he filed the first of nearly 40 patents--for a marine speedometer--in 1930. Sperry Gyroscope bought the business in 1936. Ted went to work for Sperry, which let him launched on the side a new company that built on the speedometer patent.
The couple moved to Connecticut and over the years reinvented the business under several versions of the Kenyon identity. In 1958 Ted moved the company, now called Kenyon Laboratories, into a building at the Chester Airport, so he and Teddy could park their plane out front. The business made aviation and marine instruments but also cooktops and alcohol stoves for use in boats.
An early grill design for Kenyon Grill. CREDIT: Courtesy Kenyon Grill
Three years later Kenyon Laboratories declared bankruptcy and was acquired by a company called Flexible Tubing, which for years battled Ted over the name "Kenyon" as he sought to restart some version of the business. Eventually he was able to sell gyrostabilizers--a marine product he had invented in the '40s--under the name Ken Lab. That company still exists under different ownership, about five miles from Kenyon Grill.
"Inventors are not always the best businesspeople," Williams says. "He kind of lost control of his company and was not able to continue to sell the product that he had invented."
The marine and cooktops business, meanwhile, passed from hand to hand. At one point the shoe company Buster Brown owned it. In the 1980s, it was acquired by International Marine Industries (IMI). Here, Williams entered the picture.
From Florida to Fenway
Williams is also an entrepreneur and inventor. In 1974 he launched a company called Crosby in St. Petersburg, Florida, making marine refrigeration systems of his own design. In 1988 he sold that business to IMI and moved to Connecticut to head up Kenyon. For eight years he led efforts to design ceramic glass cooktops, refrigeration systems, and a non-pressurized alcohol stove for the marine industry.
In 1996 Williams and several friends bought Kenyon from IMI. "We knew the value of the products and the people," Williams says. "We felt that it could be a much better company if we were in complete control."
The business at that time employed around 20 people, and 100 percent of revenues came from the marine industry. Looking to diversify, Williams and his partners saw an opportunity. "We knew the baby boomers would be retiring and we wanted to design for them the highest-quality cooking appliance for their new, smaller homes," he says. For example, Kenyon was among the first to market with a two-burner cooktop.
A built-in Kenyon Grill cooktop on a boat. CREDIT: Courtesy Kenyon Grill
Like many Kenyon products, its grills were designed for safe use on boats. Now most are made for residential complexes where open flame cooking devices are prohibited, which has been a key to their popularity.
Another big reason is the Red Sox. In 2015 an account manager at John W. Henry & Co., an investment management firm that is principal owner of the team, contacted Williams's son Mike, the sales and marketing manager, after seeing a Kenyon Grill ad in Boston magazine. At that time the price of a partnership was too rich. But Kenyon signed up to sponsor football and hockey at Boston College, another John W. Henry client. That paid off so well that this year Kenyon took the plunge.
"It was kind of a three-year courtship before getting to the Red Sox level," Mike Williams says. "We like to think that part of their success this year was having our grill as a sponsor." (He was joking.)
Steak with wine sauce
True to the spirit of Ted Kenyon, Williams has been ramping up his engineering group and investment in R&D. But the business cares not only what consumers cook on, but also what they cook. When Kenyon introduced the grills in 2006 it also produced a cookbook. Having developed recipes for more than a decade, it is preparing to issue new volumes.
Some of those recipes are exotic, like grilled pineapple with ice cream. But Williams' favorite is a simple steak, made with red wine poured in the grill tray that captures drippings. "Put some onions in there and mushrooms if you like and reduce that down and pour it over your steak," he says. "It is so good."