George Foreman wasn’t interested in any grill.
It was 1994, and the boxer, who was still in the middle of an unlikely comeback, had received what he perceived to be a novelty item. It was an indoor electric grill along with a note expressing hope that Foreman might be interested in endorsing it. The Short Order Grill, as it was then known, seared food on both sides at once using a slanted surface, which allowed most of the grease to drip down into a plastic trap.
To Foreman, it looked like a toy. So it sat, unused, for six months, before his wife Joan insisted he try it. Foreman liked a hamburger cooked on the grill and decided to run with it.
It was a burger that would eventually make him hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Cheeseburger Champ
If you had quizzed fans of Foreman during his prime in the 1970s and asked them what might be next for the famed boxer, few likely would have predicted he would become a product pitchman. Foreman—surly, typically scowling, and possessed of incredible power—was among the most feared athletes in the sport. Many observers predicted that he would not only defeat, but likely seriously hurt, challenger Muhammad Ali during their “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire on October 30, 1974. But Ali won, and Foreman stepped away from the boxing ring not long after.
Foreman returned in 1991 after a decade’s absence, this time with a demonstrably sunnier disposition that he credited to his commitment to his faith. During the build-ups to his bouts, Foreman was usually relaxed, playing into his image as a middle-aged man removed from his once-chiseled physique. He referred to himself as the “Cheeseburger Champ.”
The public’s warm feelings toward Foreman only increased, and product endorsement offers followed. The more success he had in the ring—he beat Michael Moorer to regain the heavyweight championship in 1994—the more advertisers wanted to capitalize on his popularity. In a way, Foreman later recalled, his boxing had been a sales job—people needed to believe an athlete in his forties could be competitive.
That same year, Foreman was approached with a business proposition from Michael Boehm, the inventor of the Short Order Grill, a tabletop appliance that promised to cut down on the fats present in many cooked meats. Boehm began by conducting an experiment.
“What I usually do is start out with the simplest components I can find,” Boehm told Entrepreneur in 2016. “I focus on proof of concept, if you will. In the case of the grill, I heated a cast-iron baking sheet, set it at an angle, and started cooking on it. Would the grease drain? Would the food cook? It did! I was very happily surprised that first time. As crude as it was, it worked. It proved the concept.”
A Lean, Mean, Money-Making Machine
Boehm, working with engineer Robert W. Johnson, secured a patent for the grill, but in a crowded consumer product marketplace, he needed a way to stand out. The affable Foreman, who had already been doing commercials for Meineke Mufflers, seemed like a good choice. Via a marketing expert who knew both Boehm and Foreman, Boehm forwarded his initial prototype. After some reluctance, Foreman agreed to represent it.
Foreman could apparently see something others could not: Almost every other company Boehm approached had turned him down, believing cooking at an angle would be too unusual for consumers who viewed grilling as an outdoor (and level) activity. It ended up being manufactured by Salton, Inc., a small appliance manufacturer that's also responsible for the Juiceman juicer and the Breadman bread machine.
But Foreman was only part of the equation. In the 1990s, consumers had been primed to treat dietary fat as the enemy, and low-fat snacks like SnackWell’s were all the rage. For a brief time, Olestra, a fat substitute, seemed like a winning idea. It was marketed in Lay’s chips before people realized the oily and non-digestible substance could result in “anal leakage.” Other ways to avoid fat were clearly needed. The Foreman Grill seemed like a solution.
Foreman did his part to pump up the abilities of the grill, hyping it as a lean, mean, fat-reducing grilling machine—which also now bore his name. Wisely, Boehm decided to focus on the smallest size first, reasoning it would reduce shipping costs. When the $30 grill (sized for two burgers) got popular enough, Boehm expanded their offerings to other sizes as well as accessories. Grill users would, of course, need scrapers, cleaners, and sponges in order to maintain their appliance.
Foreman was effusive during infomercials, QVC spots, and appearances on late-night television, stressing its low-fat results and quick grilling time. (Most meats take under 10 minutes to cook.) It was little wonder he was so determined: To endorse the product, Foreman negotiated a deal with Salton that would net the athlete 40 to 45 percent of the revenue.
Initially, sales were slow. In 1996, the second full year the grill was available, Salton saw $5 million in revenue. But by 1998, that figure had ballooned to $200 million thanks to word-of-mouth and a stream of infomercials. At one point, after losing a fight against Shannon Briggs, Foreman was handed his latest royalty check for the grill while brooding in the locker room. It was for $1 million. It was also Foreman’s last bout.
Afterward, instead of expressing his dismay that he had lost a decision fight some sportswriters believed he had actually won, Foreman saw a chance to get the word out on his other venture. “Look, that's about eight weeks I spent on the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine,” he said. “I grill right in the bedroom. Steak and salmon steak. I was able to lose a lot of weight. That thing really works. Remember, the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine. No home should be without this thing. God bless you. Go get one.”
After paying out an estimated $50 to $60 million to Foreman in royalties, Salton bought out Foreman and two of his business partners for a reported $137.5 million in 1999. In exchange, Foreman agreed to never endorse any other cookware, and never to anoint another nonstick grill as his favorite. Though he hasn’t officially endorsed the product for years, Foreman’s likeness still appears on the box. To date, well over 100 million Foreman grills have been sold.
Because Foreman was so successful pitching the grill, some came to believe he had invented it. Foreman once jokingly tweeted that he had come to the idea after dreaming about a talking piece of meat following his loss to Ali. For a time, Boehm said he carried around a copy of his patent to prove to people he was the one who had created the product.
Foreman was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002. But the George Foreman Grill has a place of honor, too—it's in the Smithsonian.