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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 10, 2016 4 years ago

Give it sizzle

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Shelly Stayer created an electric grill specifically designed to cook bratwurst. The small appliance could boost sausage sales.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Shelly Stayer has been thinking for 10 years about creating an indoor electric grill designed for bratwurst.

Frankly speaking, the German sausage is a pain to cook indoors. It doesn't brown uniformly in a pan, no one's sure when it's done and if you slice it before cooking it loses all its flavorful juices. And who wants to grill in the winter when there's snow on the ground?

But if you're Shelly Stayer, the president of Johnsonville Foods and a Naples resident, you dream about ways to sell more sausages. “Why don't we just invent a small appliance?” Stayer wondered.

Husband Ralph Stayer, currently the chairman of Johnsonville who co-owns the company with Shelly Stayer, initially shot down the idea when she proposed it at a family gathering a decade ago. “He was the first one to say absolutely not,” explaining they were in the business of making sausages, not making electric appliances.

But changing consumer habits persuaded Ralph Stayer that Shelly's idea of an indoor grill designed for brats would be a good idea. That's because consumers don't spend as much time cooking food anymore and they're pressed for time.

Besides, people are more likely to buy Johnsonville's fresh sausages if they're easy to grill indoors. She estimates people who buy the grill could easily double their brat consumption. “I didn't have to keep presenting my case,” she says.

But creating a small appliance was no light task. Stayer won't disclose the investment in the Johnsonville Sizzling Sausage Grill, but it took five years to design. “It's the curse of an entrepreneur: you start with 100 ideas,” Stayer says.

Fortunately, Johnsonville has a team of engineers and test kitchens who helped design the unique mold that can hold five sausages. “We did a lot of tinkering,” Stayer says. “I was extremely fussy because I wanted the product to be done beautifully.”

One of the biggest challenges in grilling is knowing when the sausages are done, so Stayer incorporated a patented sensor in the appliance to tell the consumer when their sausages are cooked. “It dings when it's done,” she says. “It takes the guesswork out of grilling.”

Even though she's the president of Johnsonville Foods, Stayer says she never was a pro at grilling. “I want everybody to be a hero at grilling,” she says, noting that the grill comes with its own recipe book.

Stayer says she searched but couldn't find a manufacturer in the U.S., so for now the grills are made in China by the same company that makes the George Foreman Grill, Vitamix blenders and Keurig coffee makers. She's ordered 10,000 and sells them for $79.99 each.

For now, Stayer is selling the grills at the Johnsonville retail store in Naples and with infomercials on television. “We're starting with infomercials because we know that worked for the George Foreman Grill,” she says.

Once she has more data on consumers who buy the grill, Stayer says she plans to approach retailers with information on who's buying the grill, what price they're willing to pay and how they're using it. “Marketing is all data now,” Stayer says.

It's only been a few weeks and the biggest market so far is no surprise: Wisconsin. But Stayer says urban areas have seen some strong sales because people can use the grill on their balconies. The appliance is designed to stand upright for easy storage, overcoming one of the biggest drawbacks of appliances crowding kitchen countertops.

Easy storage is important for international markets. For example, Johnsonville's sausages are the top brand in Japan, where housing space is at a premium.

Stayer is exploring other opportunities, too. That includes creating a bigger electric grill for restaurants, though she's mum about how quickly that project will come to market.

So far, Stayer says the grill has been a big hit in her own home, too. “My husband hasn't pulled out the outdoor grill in 10 months,” she says.

Grill features

Scroll over or click on the image below to explore the features of the Johnsonville Sizzling Sausage Grill.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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