New York entrepreneur Stu Salenger was paging through a trade magazine last fall when an advertisement for a new breed of barbecues caught his eye.
It didn't take long for him to decide that a 2,600-pound barbecue that looks like an old steam locomotive and was built by Iron Horse Barbecue in White City was exactly what he wanted.
"We're in the process of acquiring a train station and I thought, 'What better thing is there for a catering company and bed and breakfast?' '' said Salenger, who lives in Forestburgh, N.Y., about 95 miles north of New York City.
Sales to people such as Salenger keep the White City business chugging along while the rest of the slumping economy gathers steam.
Iron Horse owners Jim and Penny Oberlander have been making the distinctive locomotive barbecues for rental companies and amusement park operators across the U.S. since 2004. They've also sold units in Panama, Honduras and Canada. They began selling traditional charcoal-fueled barbecues, but have recently developed two new units. One cooks with infrared heat; the other uses a 50/50 mix of infrared and charcoal.
The Oberlanders sold 10 units last year and expect to sell at least that many during 2009.
"Some of our clients haven't been hit as hard by the recession," Penny Oberlander said.
Infrared barbecues burn hotter than charcoal fires, and they have been used in restaurants for years to sear meat quickly. They also develop heat faster than charcoal fires. Infrared burners are placed underneath ceramic, glass or metal tiles that distribute heat through the food. Advocates of infrared cooking say it leaves meat juicier than a gas grill and offers more temperature control than charcoal.
Salenger was impressed with one of the Oberlanders' new propane-fueled infrared barbecues, which sell for $23,600. The 50/50 infrared and charcoal hybrid costs $22,600, and the original charcoal model goes for $21,600.
Salenger got his first look at his new toy last week.
"We hitched it on one of our trucks and the people in town were amazed when they saw it," Salenger said. "We gave it a test run on Monday to get the kinks out."
In a few days he plans to fire up his new Iron Horse for the Monticello Motor Club, which counts Mario Andretti and Jerry Seinfeld among its members.
"A barbecue on wheels should get them excited," Salenger said. "Nobody's seen this before."
When the Oberlanders attend trade shows, rental equipment owners looking at the Iron Horse try to factor how much return they can expect from their investment, Penny Oberlander said. "But when we're at amusement park shows we might be right next to a coffee kiosk that sells for $80,000 and it doesn't look so expensive."
Jim Kinney, who caters during the week and operates a water park in Mesa, Ariz., on weekends, figured an Iron Horse would capture the fancy of both corporate clients and kids.
"When you run an amusement park, you're always looking for something new," Kinney said. "We figured it would both be a drawing point and a landmark."
Kinney used to rent charcoal barbecues and later built one himself.
"It's not as fancy," Kinney said of his own barbecue. "We're nowhere near the craftsmen they are."
While the new styles are attractive to caterers working on deadlines, Oberlander said, "Purists will absolutely not cook with propane. They want to soak the wood and fire it up."
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail email@example.com.