George Foreman’s name may grace the label of a certain type of grill we all have in our cabinets, but he didn’t actually invent the machine. No, that honor belongs to a man named Michael Boehm. Back in the early 1990s, Boehm realized that “small kitchen appliances were a sleeping giant,” and decided to capitalize on that slumber. Since then the category has pretty much exploded.
We consider the George Foreman Grill an early precursor to the more electronically advanced products we write about on this site and want to pay homage to where it all started. So we caught up with Boehm to interview him firsthand and hear what he’s up to now. Here’s his story.
Working for a Chinese home electronics manufacturer called Tsann Kuen USA, Boehm created something called the Steam Grill: You poured the water, broth, or wine in a well in the center of the grill, put the meat on, and closed the lid. Voila: tender, succulent meat.
He quickly sold three different versions to three different companies. One of them decided to make an infomercial with a regional chef in California. “The product sold well but only in the West,” Boehm said. “I said they’ve got the wrong idea here.”
So when he invented his next product, the Short Order Grill, which used a slanted surface to help fat slide off the grill, he knew he needed a spokesperson to make it sing. His first choice? George Foreman.
“He’s kind of a quirky guy but very charismatic,” Boehm said. He’d heard Foreman had five sons named George and that they loved burgers, as well as that Foreman had burgers before each fight. So in December 1993 he sent a prototype to the Foreman camp and waited. After many months, Foreman’s wife, Mary, started using the grill, and eventually George came calling.
Since that fateful day more than 100 million grills have been sold and George Foreman has made around $200 million from the deal.
Of course, Boehm created the grill as part of his job at Tsann Kuen, and the company sold the plans for the product outright to Salton, who worked with Foreman to brand it. So Boehm didn’t make a single penny beyond his salary.
To this day he carries around the patent in his pocket, to prove to people that he did in fact invent the grill.
But despite that habit, he doesn’t seem too concerned about the patent. “I chose to develop another product, and then another, rather than play legal games with people,” he said. Other inventions have included a quesadilla maker and a fusion grill that “looked like a volcano.” And it’s not just kitchenware: He’s also designed everything “from snowmobiles to electronics to toys” for places like JC Penney. Heck, he even designed a coffee maker that’s featured in the Whitney Museum.
A person like that is an inventor for life. “I’m looking for something that I look at it and go wow, it’s going to make my life easier,” he said. “That challenge of finding the elusive secret.”