In the late 1960s, the Boeing 747 opened up nonstop travel to Hawaii from many US mainland cities. United Airlines was the first to offer nonstop flights from Chicago, and by 1968, Chicago was besieged with TV ads extolling the exotic wonders of our fiftieth state.
At Weber we came up with a joint promotion that would ride on the coattails of United’s advertising. At our key retail outlets we would hold in-store luaus, featuring grill-roasted whole pigs, United Airline coupons, and Hawaiian dancing girls. United even threw in Hawaiian orchids for the first 100 women to show up, along with posters of island sights and native dancers.
My colleagues and I donned Hawaiian shirts and shorts and generally looked completely out of place roasting pigs on giant Weber Ranch kettles in store parking lots, but the promotions were a hit. The melodic strains of the greatest ukulele hit of all time, "Tiny Bubbles", and the aroma of roasting pork would lure shoppers over, where they’d see the crazy Weber folks dressed like Don Ho and handing out free eats. What a way to make a living!
Believe it or not, these events were extremely popular among retailers, because they really drew customers and racked up sales of Weber grills. By the early 1970s, we were hosting hundreds of luaus around the country.
For me, the most memorable one took place in St. Louis at a Famous & Barr store, but I wasn’t even scheduled to work the event. It all started when a fellow Weber fan called me at home one night. In a sheepish yet somewhat inebriated voice, he explained that he and his coworker were pigless. You see, it’s not easy to fly into a town and find a butcher shop that just happens to have a whole pig on hand. So we had contracted with Meeske’s Meat Shop in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, to prepare and box whole pigs for us. Our grill teams would pick them up on their way to the airport and check them with their luggage to their luau destination.
So, late one Friday night in 1971, I find out that both of my fellow pig roasters thought the other had picked up the pig. Braniff Airlines was serving free booze all the way to St. Louis and it wasn’t until they happily landed (and I do mean happily) that they discovered neither of them had the pig. Frantic, they had called all over St. Louis and, to their dismay, were unable to find a whole pig. The big luau was scheduled to start the next day at 11:00 a.m.
We quickly hatched the following plan. I would pick up their pig, head to O’Hare, buy a ticket, check the pig, but not actually get on the flight. They would then retrieve the pig from baggage claim in St. Louis and race to the luau.
The only problem was that, among all the airlines, there was only one seat left—in first class. It departed Chicago at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, arriving in St. Louis at 9:50 a.m. It was cutting it close, but we could still have the pig on the grill before the first notes of "Tiny Bubbles". Our mission was all the more critical because the president of Famous & Barr stores was to be there. He had said that if he liked what he saw, he would place our products in his entire chain of stores.
When Saturday dawned, I was camped out at Meeske’s, waiting for the doors to open. Unfortunately, the night before was Grandpa and Grandma Meeske’s 50th anniversary party and the whole family was moving rather slow and about fifteen minutes behind schedule. I was out of there with my boxed pig by 8:20 a.m., but now I had a 20-minute ride to O’Hare.
Several red lights and a slow-moving freight train later, I realized it was too close to departure time to check my luggage, so I had to go to plan B. Fortunately, I had a good-sized duffle bag in the trunk of my car.
Luckily, I found a parking spot close to the terminal. People looked at me strangely as I removed a plastic-wrapped, nearly frozen pig from a Meeske’s box and stuffed it into a duffle bag, but anything can happen at O’Hare, so they just walked past another crazy. I raced to the ticket counter, lugging my pig. The agent told me I’d have to run to make the flight. Let me tell you, a pig gets mighty heavy when you’re sprinting with it through an airport.
I made the flight just as the door was closing and found that the seat next to mine was a no-show. What a relief. I literally needed to hog some stowage space! I stuffed my duffled companion below the two seats in front of me. As I caught my breath and the plane gained altitude, I contemplated asking the flight attendant for one of those little wing pins for my pig, but I decided not to press my luck.
The good news was that the pig beat the president to the luau. He arrived very pleased with the size of the crowd, and complemented us on the food. “Well,” I told him, as my hungover colleagues choked back their laughter, “at Weber we like to do everything in a first-class manner.”