Editor’s note: This story, written by Casey Penn, appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read online at this link.
Summer has finally settled in here in Arkansas. With sunlight comes tasty aromas floating on backyard breezes and inducing enthusiasm for outdoor food, fun and events based around the summer grill.
For many local consumers, summertime grilling – including juicy steaks, plump hamburgers, garden vegetables or smoked barbecue – is all the more satisfying when you know you’re supporting Arkansas businesses and using products manufactured right here in the Natural State. We found three such products that, when added to your grilling gamut, could create a little healthy grill envy in your neighborhood.
Any discussion of grilling must begin with this deeply philosophical question: Charcoal or gas?
One local purveyor’s answer puts him squarely on the coals – a fitting platform for Paul James, attorney at the James Carter & Coulter Law Firm in Little Rock and the owner and reviver of the once-defunct Portable Kitchen (PK) Charcoal Grill and Smoker.
“Many households own more than one grill. If you’re okay with a fast, gas grill, that option is there,” said James. “I don’t think natural gas can create the same flavor as a lump or briquette that allows the smoke and the wood flavor to come through. In short, heat equals gas. Heat plus flavor equals charcoal.”
The story of the PK Grill starts in the early 1950s, the PK Charcoal Grill and Smoker was a staple in many U.S. backyards. Texas businessman and inventor, Milton Meigs, designed and manufactured the popular grill in answer to his own dream of making the perfect barbeque pit. Called the “Barbecue King,” Meigs constructed the first Portable Kitchen grill from cast aluminum for its durability and heat-controlling capabilities.
The grill was a hit, and after a few years, the company was sold and operations were moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. PK Grills were popular for years for their simplicity and longevity. Over time, manufacturing of the grills did stop – in part, according to James, due to the rise in popularity of faster-cooking gas and electric grills – but by that time, thousands of grills had shipped to military exchanges and other customers worldwide.
Meanwhile, James had grown up in the heart of barbecue utopia – Memphis, Tennessee—among uncles who fired up their PK Grills for every occasion. After moving to Little Rock to work for an attorney who loved his PK Grill so much that he fired it up at least four nights a week, James was inspired to bring the PK back into his own life.
He came across one at a garage sale and began cooking on it frequently. He loved his PK Grill so much that he decided to bring it back to the American marketplace for others to enjoy. With help from his wife Sarah and his sister Martha, James began an impassioned crusade to revive the grill. He purchased the rights to the PK from Char-broil and WC Bradley. James then went to the Regalware foundry that had made the tools and dies for the original PK Grills. They helped him build new molds in a joint venture. When Regalware decided to move their foundry to Wisconsin, they allowed James to own the rights 100%.
The PK Grill has long been associated with Arkansas and James calls it a good “ambassador” in the barbecue industry for the state. James described part of the PK Grill’s initial appeal.
“I’m a baby boomer,” he said. “Back in my day, people didn’t eat out as much as they do now. Cooking out gave mom a break while dad grilled outside. Of course now, dads cook as much as moms and grilling out in general seems to be making a comeback.”
Indeed, Americans own a lot of grills. In 2012 alone, $6 million worth of charcoal grills were sold compared to $8 million in gas. As for what makes the PK Grill the best for charcoal grilling is its construction and oven composition.
“Made from a one-quarter inch wall stock cast aluminum, the grill creates a reflective heat environment – much like cooking with aluminum foil. The venting system allows you to control the heat and direct the smoke. You can control, retain and direct the heat,” said James, who also pointed out that some of the best advertising for the grills has been the grill top itself. “Just like the original PK Grills made in Little Rock, each grill made today still has the PK logo and ‘Little Rock, Arkansas’ cast into the top.”
Cooking out is the thing to do over any summer holiday, according to James, who recommended that consumers purchase a Boston Butt or a Pork Shoulder for their next cookout. “Smoke it all day on the PK using a recipe from the company’s website at www.pkgrills.com or look for Portable Kitchen Charcoal Grill and Smoker on Facebook.
Many backyard grill masters are familiar with Cavender’s Greek Seasoning – already sprinkling it liberally on everything from rib eye steaks to corn roasted in the shuck. But did you know that it is made right here in Arkansas and has been for three generations?
Originally introduced as a meat seasoning, new recipe ideas and creative uses have been found that have contributed to this company’s more than 40 years of manufacturing and product sales growth, all from the same original formula. The product line has evolved little and consists of regular CGS and the salt-free CGS (same blend of spices made with a salt substitute).
Lisa Cavender, co-owner of the company with her sister, Cara Cavender Wohlgemuth, shared that from the beginning, the product was marketed as more than simply a meat seasoning.
“My Grandfather made sure to use the words ALL-PURPOSE on his label so maybe consumers would experiment,” said Cavender. “Our product can be applied before, during or after cooking. That is a great feature, as it won’t make the whole meal taste like CGS if used on several foods within the same meal.”
Cavender shared the story of one customer who took ALL-PURPOSE to the extremes. “A lady called to tell us she sprinkled CGS directly on her hot charcoal coals and the aroma had the whole neighborhood talking,” she laughed. “We encouraged her to scent up the whole city. However, my Dad and my grandfather always like to tell people to use the product on anything you would normally salt and pepper.”
When it comes to summertime grilling, the Cavender family is its own best customer.
“We have eight employees and three of us are related, so we gather a lot. We all use Cavender’s on our grilled meats, but I especially like it on seafood whether grilled, boiled, pan seared or sautéed,” she said. “My office girls were talking about how they love CGS and melted butter for their veggie bastes on their grill.”
As for her grilling preferences, Cavender, like James, is a self-labeled “die-hard charcoal fan” and “year-round griller.” Further, she proclaimed with a grin, “True grillers use charcoal.”
Cavender and her sister were born and raised in Harrison. They love the local mountains, lakes and rivers. Her grandfather originally moved there from Little Rock in 1948 because “he liked to fish up there” and the family and its plant have been there ever since.
Cavender notes, “We will always try to maintain our Arkansas manufacturing plant in Harrison … mainly because we have the best employees. Most have been here 10 to 15 years.”
She adds, “My grandfather and father owned numerous businesses. We’ve always had success and prosperity with the businesses we’ve opened in Arkansas. We’ve tried to be loyal to Arkansas because Arkansas has been so good to us. Not just Harrison, but also the whole state has always supported us.”
Word of mouth has added greatly to the growth of the company, and for Arkansas’ pride in Cavender’s, the company is eternally grateful.
“Our customers reinvent the wheel for us, and they also promote us to friends and family,” said Cavender, adding that she is proud that the company is among 170 brands manufactured in the state.
Charcoalers out there may want to consider adding extra flavor with flavored wood pellets from Pine Bluff’s BBQrsDelight.
According to its website, the product is easy and convenient to use and comes in 13 flavor varieties including Jack Daniels, Hickory, and Sassafras, all in a re-sealable, stand-up bag. Check it out at bbqrsdelight.com.