A big one can set you back a house payment and has more accessories than an Italian sports car. Some have been contested in divorces. They’ve been cursed by thieves, who can’t hoist their considerable heft over fences.
They’ve also created an international cooking cult (promoters prefer the word “family”). Members have their own Web pages where they post photos of the forest-green, charcoal-fed, egg-shaped beasts. They even have their own terminology, plays on words like “eggnition” and “eggnormous.” Children sometimes dye their hair green for “family” reunions.
Welcome to the smoke-filled universe of the Big Green Egg ceramic smoker-grills and the obsessive “Eggheads” who cherish them. It’s a universe created by a soft-spoken workaholic named Ed Fisher — the Eggman himself — a Buckhead resident who invented the egg-shaped outdoor cooker more than two decades ago and has devoted much of his life to promoting its gradual spread across the planet.
An affable, articulate man, the 75-year-old Fisher suddenly goes silent in his sparsely furnished Tucker office — world Egg headquarters — when asked what he does with his spare time.
“This business is my hobby. My passion. My life,” Fisher said after a long pause. “For many, many years I worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day. It was a struggle because I was dealing with a product that people knew nothing about.”
These days, a lot of outdoor cooks in a lot of places know a lot about Fisher’s Egg, a modern refinement of a 3,000-year-old Asian oven known as a “kamado.”
More than a million Eggs have been sold worldwide, Fisher said. His privately held company has reportedly grown at a rate of about 20 percent annually over the past 10 years. Eggs are now sold in 24 countries and in 2,000 specialty stores in the United States.
From games to grills
Next weekend, about 1,700 Eggheads will gather in Tucker at the 12th annual “Eggtoberfest” to pay homage to Fisher and his creation. There are also two dozen smaller Eggfests held around the nation, as well as fests in Canada and Holland.
At the Tucker event, the Fisher faithful will cook on 225 large Eggs, swap recipes that range from slow-smoked ribs to bourbon bread pudding, and generally behave like Egg fanatics. If you don’t already have a ticket, don’t even think about showing up. The event sold out in 48 hours.
All of the Eggmania would not have happened had it not been for the entrepreneurial spirit of a man who grew up poor in south Philadelphia. Fisher had two brothers, Jack and Nat, whom he idolized, and both went on to create successful businesses — one opened a group of successful record stores, the other created a successful T-shirt printing business.
“My brothers were 14 and 17 years older than me,” he said. “They were my role models. Having grown up around entrepreneurs, that became my goal in life.”
It was a goal deferred, however because Fisher wanted to be a pilot. He spent four years in the Navy. He flunked the eye exam required for aviators but did land a spot aboard a Super Constellation in the late 1950s as an electronics officer. He logged 3,500 hours in the air searching for Russian bombers.
His creation of the Egg had its inception back in the mid-1970s when he opened a store near the intersection of Buford Highway and Clairmont Road selling a pinball-like game from Japan called a Pachinko. He sold refurbished Pachinkos, but also imported a few kamado ovens in various colors. He cooked chicken wings and passed them out to customers who were shopping for Pachinkos.
A consuming career
Eventually, Pachinko sales faltered. But kamado sales picked up, and Fisher began to fiddle with the basic design. A friend at Georgia Tech told him about a company in Mexico making a space-age ceramic that would be perfect for a cooker. Fisher got in touch and his new cooker began to take shape.
At first, he was still calling them kamados, but a newspaper advertising salesman convinced Fisher he needed a catchy name for his ovens, which by that time were green in color.
“I said, ‘Well, they’re big and green and they look like eggs,’ ” Fisher said. “So we called them Big Green Eggs.”
Promoting the Egg has largely consumed the last 35 years of his life, Fisher admitted. He lives by himself in Buckhead, forgoing even a pet.
“I love cats,” he said. “But I used to travel a lot. I had a cat originally, but I couldn’t treat the cat the way I should and still be away from home a lot. So I stopped trying to have a pet.”
Fisher did little traditional advertising. Eggs sold mostly through word of mouth and Fisher’s own up-close marketing tenacity.
Author Jim Champy has devoted a chapter to Fisher’s business acumen in Champy’s recent book, “Inspire! Why Customers Come Back.”
“Gradually, the Big Green Egg went from being the smallest of niche players to a real powerhouse in the upscale grill industry,” Champy writes. “Fisher engaged his customers so thoroughly that they became the core of his sales crew.”
Recipe for success
As Fisher’s company grew — it moved to the 25,000-square-foot Tucker facility five years ago — he made two key business decisions.
He would not sell on the Internet because of problems with shipping the heavy, breakable ceramic cookers. And he would stay out of big-box stores, opting for more limited sales at specialty stores favored by serious outdoor cooks.
“When you go to a grill store, they know grills,” he said.
Fisher’s formula worked better than he ever imagined. His company today has 12 distributors across the country who act as Egg wholesalers.
Charcoal-fired smokers today are the fastest-growing segment of the grill business, and the Egg is the best-selling brand in the U.S. and Canada, according to the trade association that monitors such things.
“The recession has not hurt us much,” Fisher said. “More people are staying home and cooking out instead of going on expensive road trips. The downturn has been good for the Egg.”
There are about 10 companies making some version of a kamado-style grill. Along with Fisher’s company, two others are based in metro Atlanta: Primo in Norcross and Bubba Keg in Smyrna. But the Egg has the biggest share of the market by far.
True blue to Green Egg
Despite the passion they inspire, ceramic cookers like the Egg do have their detractors. Critics complain they are too heavy and too expensive. Fans, however, dismiss the naysayers with a wave of the hand through the fragrant smoke rising from their chimneys.
Beryl Koplin, who with his wife, Doris, teaches cooking courses on the Egg at The Cook’s Warehouse, has owned three Eggs over the last few decades at his Morningside home. He still has two of them; he gave the other to a friend.
“It leaves the food moist. It doesn’t dry it out like some of the kettle-type grills,” Koplin said, sounding like a walking product endorsement (a common trait among true Eggheads).
“You have to lay out a real chunk of change for one of these things,” he admitted. “But it’s the final frontier of grilling.”
The smallest Eggs, called “minis” can be had for a about $250, while the large ones, with a few added accessories (platforms called “nests,” pizza stones, multi-layer racks) can push the price-tag north of $1,000. The odd-looking contraptions come in five sizes, ranging from the 30-pound mini to the biggest (or “eggnormous”) Egg, which weighs 205 pounds and can cook 11 chickens or 24 burgers in a single firing. The most popular model weighs about 140 pounds.
Eggs, which can function as a grill, a smoker and even an oven, have a thick white, ceramic interior that (once “eggnited”) evenly distributes heat and can maintain a constant temperature of 200 to 800 degrees. Fueled by lump charcoal, each has a built-in thermometer. A sliding lower door and upper chimney can be manipulated to control the heat for hours.
All about the food
Cobb County resident Kristin Sharma bought one for her husband, Ravi, four years ago. She said the Egg mimics a traditional Indian clay oven, called a tandoor.
“We do smoked tofu; we do the Indian stuff,” she said. “Probably one of our favorite new items is naan, which is Indian flatbread.”
Fisher himself has two Eggs at home, a small and a large. He still sometimes grills for friends. Nothing fancy — steak, chicken, the occasional turkey. But ask him about his home grilling, and you soon get a sales pitch.
“Everything you put in — chicken, turkey, ribs — you’ll find is far more juicy and more tender; the flavor is far superior to any other grill,” he said. “That’s what accounts for the success of the Egg. The food is incredibly better.”
Meet the Eggman
Name: Edward R. Fisher
Title: President/CEO Big Green Egg
Claim to fame: He took a 3,000-year-old concept and created a cooking icon.
Company employees: 22
Fisher factoid: His father was a furrier who emigrated from Russia.