Charless in Charge

Fireside with Jan Strauch, visionary of vertical grilling

By Ted Katauskas June 1, 2013 Published in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Jan Eric Strauch bona fides as an inventor?

The Janwich aside (more on that later), consider the official document that hangs proudly, opposite a reproduction of DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man, on the south wall of his Edwards Village atelier: U.S. Patent #8,418,685, a.k.a. “Barbecue Grill with Variably Positioned Food Basket.”

Sitting at his desk in a cramped office upstairs from a flower shop, Strauch—Mad Men–era Manhattan adman, early Vail restaurateur, retired Edwards travel agent—cues a video on a laptop computer, which booms, “Introducing the revolutionary Charless Grill, the next evolution in outdoor grilling!” There follows a minutes-long recitation of the yet-to-be-birthed innovation’s many attributes.

“George Foreman is nothing,” declares the 71-year-old Wolcott resident, who cultivates an entrepreneurial air with his bald pate, receding white hair, and oversized eyeglasses. “George did a great job with the electric grill, but he is not a competitor. The E-grill is only 2% of the market. I’m after 98% of the market”—the $3 billion domestic market for conventional outdoor barbecue grills.

You see, says Strauch, whether you’re burning Kingsford in a $89 Weber kettle, mesquite in a $600 Big Green Egg, or propane in a $10,000 Alfresco Classic, you’re using the same Cro Magnon–era technology: meat cooked horizontally over an open flame, which makes it vulnerable to gravity-induced flare-ups. After carbonizing yet another rib eye a few summers ago, Strauch got to thinking, then started tinkering. Cobbling a firebox out of sheet metal, he lined two of the interior walls with charcoal briquettes, sandwiched a couple of steaks between wire grates, and inserted the meat vertically like bread in a toaster, searing both sides simultaneously and perfectly, with no flare-ups. With the help of an Eagle-Vail metalsmith, he refined the prototype, adding a “variably positioned food basket” that cranks from horizontal to vertical; foam core models of the prototype serve as bookends on a nearby shelf. Assuming all goes as planned, in January Strauch expects to begin shipping the first $2,500 Charless Grills from a factory in Singapore, Shanghai, or perhaps San Diego.

He anticipates orders in the millions, but if he sells even one, the Charless Grill will outperform the Janwich, which Strauch modeled after the Toas-Tite, a stovetop grilled cheese maker popular in the 1940s. Although Strauch built a prototype of the Janwich in the 1980s, he never had it produced. Meanwhile, last year, after discovering that the Toas-Tite’s patent had expired, two sisters from Chicago reverse-engineered and resurrected the machine, which they’re hawking on the Internet to retro-hungry hipsters for $29.95.

“I never pursued it,” our intrepid inventor says with a sigh. “This is what happens to a lot of people.”

But never again to Jan Strauch.

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