This interview was conducted in July of 2021 between Al Contarino Inventor of the KettlePizza and Chris Barillo Professional Chef and Author.
Barillo: Thank you Al for inviting me to your home shop. It is quite a privilege as I have been following the success of KettlePizza for many years now. It’s great to see where the ideas came from!
Contarino: You are very welcome. I am glad you could make it here and spare the time. I know you are very busy.
Barillo: For starters, how did you come up with the idea for the KettlePizza?
Contarino: Well, I have always loved grilling and I have always loved pizza! I’m an inventor and have a technical background, I love to tinker, take things apart and build things. I have always thought grills were very inefficient because they lose all their heat every time you lift the lid. Years ago I developed a gas grill that had a door and sliding drawer so the heat stayed inside. It was a cool idea I thought and I actually got on a TV show with it called Everyday Edisons.
Barillo: Wow you got that on TV! What happened?
Contarino: The team at Everyday Edisons worked on the design and tried to get a grill manufacturer to license the patents and take it over. I tried as well, but together we couldn’t get anyone to run with it. I was pretty disappointed because I worked very hard on the design.
Barillo: So then did you shift your attention to pizza ovens?
Contarino: Well, kind of. I was actually at a trade show trying to sell the gas grill and I learned that the charcoal was a big segment of grills at about 25% with a dominant player (Weber). I also learned that people were trying to cook pizza and other foods on their grills with limited success. I put 2 and 2 together and said I can make a product to turn the Weber kettle into a pizza oven and I can build and sell them directly without the dependance of the grilling channel which I felt was closed off to new ideas. I went home and started working on designs.
Barillo: And what happened?
Contarino: I made a prototype out of things I got at Home Depot. Roof flashing, etc. I made a ring that sat on the Weber kettle grill and then the lid sat on top of that. I called some friends including George Peters who would eventually be my partner in the business. We cooked some pizza, gauged the feedback and I knew I was on to something. I was a hack at Solidworks and made a design that I had a local shop laser cut. The KettlePizza pizza oven for the Weber kettle grill was invented.
Barillo: That is amazing! What happened next did you sell the idea?
Contarino: No, not at all. I was committed to making as much of the KettlePizza in the United States as possible. And based off of my experience trying to sell the continuous convection grill I decided that I didn’t want to be dependent on the channel. I had the tools in my home shop to roll the sheet metal and form it into a ring. We outsourced the laser cutting and paint and off we went. We first started to sell them on E-bay and some of the pizza forums saw them and wrote reviews which were not that great at first.
Barillo: The reviews were actually bad?
Contarino: Well, if you took the time to read them the users basically wrote us a roadmap on how to improve the product. Change to stainless steel vs painted cold rolled, make adjustable for 18 and 22″ Weber kettle grills, make shorter to retain heat. Since we were making the product domestically on a just in time basis we were able to make changes on the fly. I’m pretty proud of that.
Barillo: Did you just keep selling on E-bay or did you get the product into stores?
Contarino: So, the next jump was to start selling on Amazon. From there we started to sell through some of the grill stores and we eventually got the product into Walmart and we were selected by them because we had a very cool product that was Made in USA. We flew to Bentonville, met the CEO and got on TV. It was pretty amazing. We also got the product into Crate and Barrel, Ace Hardware and some other places as well.
Barillo: What about competition like the Ooni Pizza Oven, the Bakerstone Pizza Oven and the Roccbox Pizza Oven. How did these affect you?
Contarino: Ooni, Bakerstone and Roccbox make really great pizza ovens. Our products are the only ones where the majority of the product is Made in USA with American labor and steel. Ours are also more of an accessory for your current grill so you don’t need another free standing product. That said the competitors are very good and helped me to raise our game when developing KettlePizza.
Barillo: I know you are an inventor. Did you continue to develop new products as well?
Contarino: I developed a number of accessories such as our pizza peels, pizza spinners, pro grate and eventually I developed a product for the gas grills called the KettlePizza Gas Pro. It’s not as popular as the charcoal KettlePizza but personally it is my go to product for convenience and speed. It works great.
Barillo: Oh and did I hear you bought a company too?
Contarino: Yes. Along the lines we bought a company called Smokenator that made a really cool smoker attachment for Weber Kettle Grills. They work great and are complementary to our offering of Weber kettle grill accessories. People like them a lot and talk about them often on Facebook.
Barillo: So what is next? Shark Tank?
Contarino: I wish I had a dollar for each time someone asked about Shark Tank! We applied twice for Shark Tank and were finally selected in 2018/2019 to attend the taping. It was a huge amount of work to prepare for the pitch with the sharks. In the end the sharks didn’t value the company anywhere what I thought it was worth so we didn’t make a deal. It was a great experience even though the clip didn’t air.
Barillo: That’s a disappointment! How do you recover from that!
Contarino: Well you aren’t going to believe what happened next. I was pretty disappointed that we didn’t get a deal with the sharks. I was at soccer practice with my son and I noticed a voicemail on my cell. It was a woman that said she worked for the office of the President of the United States. She said they wanted to invite KettlePizza to The White House to represent the State of Massachusetts for our dedication to American Manufacturing. I thought it was one of my friends playing a prank on me so I googled the name of the caller and I almost fell off my seat – she was from The White House!
Barillo: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Contarino: Nope. George and I headed to The White House and showed the KettlePizza products off to all the people that attended the event. It was quite an honor.
Barillo: This is such a great story. So where do things stand now? I see you don’t have your facility in North Andover any more.
Contarino: Right. Running a day to day business can be quite daunting. And there were other things that I and George wanted to pursue. We are both inventors and have other things up our sleeves. So I ended up licensing the products to Sparton Technology in Hudson, NH and they are running with it now. Sparton was our manufacturing partner from the beginning so they were already intimate with the products and they are doing great with it.
Barillo: Awesome. Thank you so much for the interview.
Contarino: You are welcome!