Dinner Date with the Mangrate

By Mike Drummond

mangrateI told Evan McConnell that I’ve barbecued pizzas made from scratch on my charcoal Weber grill and he one-upped me.

He regularly cooks Sunday breakfasts on his grill. Bacon, eggs, toast, the works.

McConnell has made a comfortable living as CEO of mobile computing enterprise EarthWalk Communications. He founded the Manassas, Va.-based company in 1996. It now deploys computer labs for school districts and other clients across the world.

But what really gets McConnell’s juices flowing is grilling. Simple, primitive, cookin’ outside, grilling.

He “invented” the Mangrate, mail-order hunks of cast iron grills – 16-inch long, 8 pounds of heft forged in the United States and made from the same stuff used in engine blocks.

For grilling devotees, the Mangrate serves as an intriguing implement, a “grilling enhancement system” and another tool in the seemingly inexhaustible chest of cooking gadgets. Yet the Mangrate saga also embodies the entrepreneurial, inventing spirit and illustrates how homegrown, low-tech marketing even in the digital era can help boost the simplest of products.

The aptly named Mangrate (McConnell’s wife’s idea) owes its origins to a demolition project. Some 20 years ago, McConnell bought an old steakhouse to convert into a nightclub.

Trained as a mechanical engineer, he was reluctant to toss the big iron bad boys.

“I brought them home and put them on my grill,” he says. “After a while I said, ‘I’m cooking just like at a restaurant.’”

When his son came of age and bought his own home, appointed with a requisite backyard barbecue, he wondered why his steaks didn’t taste as good as dad’s.

The father and son determined it was the iron grates. Unable to find restaurant-grade grates for backyard barbecues, they decided to fabricate their own.

McConnell’s product research included visiting hardware stores and measuring grill sizes. He also took the opportunity to redesign the conventional steakhouse grate.

“I analyzed the importance of collecting some of the grease,” he says, “so I added these gutters along the bottom because I wanted the smoke.”

He also aligned the grate blades to make them easier to clean. Three prototypes and a design patent (issued this year) later, he started selling Mangrates.

Although McConnell’s computer company does business across the world, he insisted on having the Mangrate, including the wood-handle, wire cleaning brush, made in the United States.

The grates are made at an undisclosed foundry somewhere in the Midwest. When it came to sourcing the wood, one supplier mentioned that the material would come from Canada.

“I wanted U.S. wood,” McConnell says. “I know we still grow trees.”

Indeed, he got the domestic wood for the same price as the Canadian offer.

“For some reason, we think everything is cheaper and better from overseas or outside the U.S.” he says. “Not true.”

When it came to advertising, Oscar Zeballos, the marketing vice president at EarthWalk, persuaded McConnell to explore the emerging world of podcasting, in addition to more conventional Web-based banner ads and infomercials.

As timing would have it, TV and radio personality Adam Carolla was experimenting with his own podcast show after getting sacked early last year from his lucrative radio gig in Los Angeles.

Carolla, a fan of grilled food (who isn’t?) and heavy, mechanical things (he was co-host of The Man Show, after all), embraced the role as Mangrate pitchman. He sings its praises before or during his daily podcasts, something media hosts used to do in the early days of television.

“The only complaint you can have about (the Mangrate) is that it’s not in every American backyard of this barbequing nation of ours,” Carolla says.

“When people think of inventions, many think of long flumes with softballs rolling down and hitting a Ferris wheel and a ball gets picked up and dropped onto a teeter totter, striking a flint, igniting a Bunsen burner,” he adds. “But the best inventions are really just the simplest ones.”

Although Mangrates enjoyed robust sales in the run-up for Father’s Day weekend in June this year, “Adam’s sell-through hasn’t been as good percentage-wise as our local (podcasting) guy,” McConnell says, noting Carolla’s numbers peaked at 8 percent. The local podcasing show’s figure is about 11 percent.

Carolla’s audience, however, is substantially larger.

McConnell says he’s learned a couple of things from the podcasting ad experience.

1)    Carolla has a “great personality and he’s good at pitching man things.”

2)    That the Mangrate is a tough sell.

“People say, ‘What’s the big deal?’”

The value of the Mangrate, according to McConnell, is that the cast iron – “Mother Nature’s non-stick surface” – sears and cooks meats and other foods. Other grilling techniques rely mostly on hot air. The grates also season with age and use, infusing food with incomparable flavor, he adds.

“If you go to Mortons,” he says, “this is what they’re cooking on.”

The message may be working.

At the time of our interview, McConnell said True Value and Ace Hardware chains had agreed to carry Mangrates. Moreover, he’s instituted a referral program. Send a friend an e-mail. If he or she buys a Mangrate, you get one free.

“Word of mouth,” says McConnell, “is the best way to advertise.”

Visit mangrate.com

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