Groveland business cooks up success with device that turns charcoal grills into pizza ovens

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photoBy Joel Brown, Special to the Journal

George & Al_BBJ

W. Marc Bernsau | Boston Business Journal George A. Peters Jr. and Al Contarino, co-founders of KettlePizza in Groveland, invented a device that can be inserted in a grill to work like a wood-fired pizza oven.

Just about everybody likes pizza. And lots of people enjoy cooking on a charcoal grill. Now two guys working in an industrial park in Groveland have put those two things together, and it’s bringing them a global market.

Co-founders Al Contarino of Boxford and George A. Peters Jr. of Haverhill say their KettlePizza kits will convert your Weber grills or other kettle grills into a wood-fired pizza oven.

Although there are several models, the kit is basically a stainless steel ring that fits between the top and bottom of the kettle, with a pizza stone over the fire. A rectangular opening allows you to slide your pizza in and out without lifting off the top of the grill and dissipating the intense heat required for proper cooking.

“Look at that leoparding,” Contarino says, using pizza lingo, as he tips up a small pie with a pizza peel to show the spots of char on the underside.

He’s cooking over charcoal and sticks of hard wood burning in a Weber kettle outside the garage door of the KettlePizza headquarters off Route 97. The KettlePizza’s built-in thermometer tops out at 700 degrees, but at the moment the needle is past that. Ready after less than five minutes, the pizza’s crust is just the right kind of chewy, the cheese melted and bubbling. Peters takes some ribbing, though, for buying a cheese blend that’s half cheddar instead of all-mozzarella.

KettlePizza kits run from $149 for the basics to a kit branded for the Serious Eats website for $399. Most come with stones, peels and turners included. They adjust to fit the standard kettle sizes. And they also do a pretty good job of cooking chocolate-chip cookies, among other baked goods.

Contario, 45, is president and Peters, 58, is vice president of KettlePizza LLC. Both are longtime inventors for whom KettlePizza is by far their most successful product. Although the two owners don’t give out financial data, they said they will ship 8,000-plus kits in 2014, up from 5,000 the year before. About a third of their kits are sold through Amazon.com, and Crate and Barrel is among their other retail outlets. They also sell direct to consumers via their website.

Their main USA business comes in spring and early summer, as people start hauling out their grills and Father’s Day is at hand. But they’ve got dealers in nine other countries and have shipped to 50. They’re found markets in Australia and South Africa and have high hopes for South American countries like Argentina and Brazil — big grilling countries with seasons opposite to ours.

Their first prototypes were built with flashing and other raw materials from Home Depot, assembled in Contarino’s barn back around 2010. For handles, “we’d get these 12-foot dowels and cut them on a chop saw, sand them and drill them,” Peters says. “We’re lucky we have all our fingers.”

Now they’re proud that KettlePizza kits are entirely made in this country, with materials sourced here too. More than half of their vendors are close by in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, Contarino said, which has allowed them to make small design improvements easily.

“If we were producing this over in China, we would have to design it and commit to X amount of containers worth, because your lead time is 12 to 18 weeks, and we wouldn’t be able to make any of those changes,” Contarino said. “We’re pretty much a just-in-time shop.”

The company has four full-time employees, including them, and four part-timers.

“It’s a fun product to have, I think that’s what’s behind their success,” said Derrick Riches, barbecue and grilling expert for About.com. “It’s simple and fun and adds versatility” to users’ grills.

“Because of the popularity of the Weber kettle, the iconic charcoal grill in the world, they have kind of a built-in audience,” Riches added.

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