The Origins of Hasty Bake and How it Cooked Up America’s Pastime of Back Yard Grilling
Grill It And They Will Come
“Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.” “Kill it and we’ll grill it.” “You choke it and we’ll smoke it.” These are great slogans to kick off an article pertaining to backyard grilling such as this. But none of them seem to fit this article. This article is different; it’s not just about a business or a product.
This article is about what it means to be a genuinely unique Oklahoma company – a story seemingly from a novel with its humble beginnings, challenges, successes, and refusal to be anything else but what the founder envisioned. It would evolve into what has become the first name in one of America’s favorite pastimes – and the only name with 75 years of vision and history behind it.
“Grill it, and they will come” seems a much better fit. Yes, a variation of that quirky line from the movie Field of Dreams with the word ‘grill’ instead of ‘build’ was what kept popping into my mind as the employees at Hasty Bake Charcoal Grill Company in Tulsa shared with me the history of the oldest grill manufacturing company, not just in Oklahoma, but in the country. For 75 years, Hasty Bake has built not just a product but also a cult following and reputation that has endured a lifetime.
With all the information provided for this article, what struck me most were the people throughout the years who believed in something, something they continued building because people kept coming. It was an original thought in 1948, long before that movie, and still maintained by people who believe progress comes through quality and its founding principles, whether the year be 1948 or 2023. This year, that company celebrates 75 years of a unique history unlike any other anywhere in the world.
In The Beginning, There Was Smoke
It would all begin with the culmination of three things: a chicken in the war-torn battlefields of Europe during WWII, a man named Grant Hastings, and Hastings’s desire to taste the deliciously smoked barbecue meats of home while serving his country in the cause of freedom. He would spend 533 days in combat in five countries as an artillery officer helping defeat the menace of the Nazis. But his thoughts about getting the smoke to circle the chicken would be the most essential concept he would bring away from war – and the beginnings of a legacy that is still going strong.
As told by Nick Parsons, Vice-President of Hasty Bake, Hastings would toy around in the field with methods of cooking and smoking meats with cookers constructed from available materials in hopes of bringing that small taste of home he longed for and was so far away from. An idea in the fields of war would eventually become a business field that he would create and build when he returned home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the war.
History of Grilling
Before Grant Hastings and his buddy, Gus Baker, conceived the idea that smoked and grilled meats could be done in our backyards, it did not exist. To many of us, it has been part of the American experience since the beginning. In truth, grilling as we know it today was not a thing until they invented it by creating the main ingredient… a backyard grill. And that all began in 1948. Up until that time, people would purchase smoked meat from restaurants.
This is because they were the only places that had large brick ovens with multiple racks above them for the meat to rest and cook. Having such a large smoker or grill in people’s backyards was not feasible, so buying from these restaurants was the only option to get quality barbecue.
Hastings had been thinking about what he wanted to accomplish since his time on the battlefields. His innovative and inventive mind had been busy with the concepts needed to create the “grilling at home” experience he wanted. When he and Baker decided to make this a reality, they scraped together $400. They paid a metal fabrication shop to weld their design.
These first couple of prototypes were heavy-duty plate steel, meaning they may as well have been a piece of artillery like the ones Hastings used during the war and, therefore, not very practical. That would soon change, but the basic design was there, and that was the vital piece. To this day, that original concept is still in use. Hastings was an inventor by nature and tweaked elements of the first few prototypes, but he had the idea right on the first one, Parsons explained.
Each new change would require a new grill to be built. By the third one, the men had the concept refined and a business idea to build upon. They converted the design from plate steel to sheet metal, making them lighter and easier to maneuver. They then had six of the first-ever backyard grills built. They were ready to move forward.
Next came the name of the company. It was decided that an amalgamation of their names would suffice. “Hasty” from Hastings and “Bake” from Baker. However, just as business was getting underway, Baker was offered a job that was too good to turn down for a man with half of a company still needing to make money – and still in the planning stages. Hastings owned a cemetery at the time, and making grills was more of a hobby at this point. Baker felt he needed to move on, though. For his part of the initial investment, he took half of the grills, and Hastings took the remaining grills to start the business.
Initially, he was selling one per month with this side business. But by 1951, it had grown into a full-fledged business. In those early days, he sold grills for $129.99 each, equivalent to $1500 today. Other models and designs would come at different prices, but none were cheap. Hastings’ marketing abilities and exposure through trade shows would help overcome this hurdle of the cost factor.
Grilling History 101
Before moving forward, some “Grilling History 101” will help you understand Hasty Bake’s impact on the grilling world. People have cooked outside for centuries, as we all know. There were open fire pits, spits to roast on, and even the pot type that rested in the ground with a grate over it and charcoal inside the pot.
Cooking outside over flame and coals was common before there were even inside places to cook over a fire. Although he did not invent outside cooking, which was developed 500,000 years ago with the domestication of fire, Hasting is the man responsible for the concept of grilling as we know it today, which became popularized in the 1950s.
Interestingly, even as a child, Hastings, an avid hunter, and angler, would hunt small birds, rabbits, and squirrels and cook them over open flames. He was doing then what had been done for centuries. Little did he know he would unknowingly invent the concept we know today as the backyard barbecue – and, in turn, revolutionize outdoor grilling. To fully understand what this means, consider that every outdoor backyard grill on the market today, regardless of who manufactures it, borrows something from the original designs of Hasty Bake. Before the company was founded, none of those things existed, Parson said.
And that first prototype, the one as heavy as a piece of field artillery, would need to be mobile if it were to be practical. As such, they added wheels and a stand to it. In that moment, what we know today as the backyard charcoal grill was born… albeit the plate steel would also have to go to for practicality purposes. Parsons pointed out that when a company invents something but uses elements of other inventions, they must reference these back to the original patent. Many, if not all, of the major backyard grill companies in the world, refer to Hasty Bake’s original designs that Hastings and Baker invented in Tulsa.
“So, when you are talking about the history of Hasty Bake, you are really talking about the history of backyard grilling,” Parsons said. Another example is vents. Hasty Bake created these too. As for putting lids on grills, Parsons notes that someone would eventually figure out that trapping the smoke in an area with the meat was a crucial element in successfully smoking and grilling meat, but they didn’t – because Hastings did it first.
Innovations & The Concept
When we purchase a charcoal grill today, they look similar in design, for the most part. Some are certainly fancier than others and may be more aesthetically pleasing or have certain bells and whistles that others don’t. But certain aspects separate them from the open fire pits and pots our ancestors cooked outside – for example, a lid.
Remember the chicken I mentioned earlier while Hastings was overseas? He had acquired a chicken, and while cooking it on an open fire, he was thinking of ways to get the smoke around the chicken instead of only the fire underneath it. The lid, sometimes referred to as a coffin top, and his perfect venting system would make that happen a few short years later.
First, he would have to trap the smoke, which he did with the lid, or hood as it was then known. But trapping the smoke wasn’t going to be enough. Hastings knew he had to get the smoke to blanket and circulate or swirl around the meat instead of just floating past it. He needed to move the air in the direction he wanted it to go. And with perfectly placed vents, he accomplished this. Today we call this convection.
Most of us know it or hear the term when we purchase an oven. But that word was only used when Hastings was designing grills in the early days. Convection is blowing air across a heat source and moving the heated air over what is cooking. He realized that by controlling heat and air in a confined space, cooking meats would be quicker and tastier. Because no one had thought to add a lid until he did, no one had made the leap to convection.
Why It Could Be Called Tasty Bake
Because of Hastings’ passion for grilling the best meat possible, his design tweaks would create what is dubbed today as a “unique swirling smoke system.” Other grills on the market can undoubtedly cook the meat but need Hastings’ designs that allow for its unique taste. Over the years, different angled lids have been created to produce the types of convection the company wanted for other models, but always following the original concept, Parsons explained.
Most grills on the market have heat circulated through vents in the bottom and top, allowing for air current – but not smoke and heat stability – during the cooking process. Hastings tried several different angles on the hoods and other locations for the vents to create the perfect method of convection cooking in a grill. His concept was discovering the ideal combination, which makes the difference in the taste that surpasses all others.
Another central design element was the adjustable firebox, which allowed 18 inches of movement between the meat and the heat source. Essentially, this means it can be either a grill or a smoker rounding out the perfect method of grilling that Hasty Bake grill owners have come to expect.
This taste difference is so well known that Hasty Bake ownership is generational. “Once someone eats from a Hasty Bake, everything else cooked on any other brand is subpar,” Parsons said. In fact, this phenomenon is so real that the company has a cult following that continues to grow. The plethora of testimonials proves an unmistakable difference in taste between Hasty Bake models and grills made by other companies.
Another reason for this following is because these grills last. In the throw-away society of today, this is a rarity. In fact, these grills are built with such integrity that the very eco-conscious country of Norway, which scrutinizes outside items to import before approving them, allows them. Norway prides itself on keeping items out of the country that will wind up in landfills because they need to be better quality. Hasty Bake grills make their list of products that will last a lifetime and even offers replacement parts for older models.
The Hasty With A Hefty Cost
Indeed, there are certainly other grills on the market that are easier on the pocketbook. To understand why this is, we must go back to the beginning and to that chicken in the field. Hastings didn’t start with the idea of building an affordable grill. His main objective was to find the best way to cook meat. If that turned out to be expensive, then so be it. Even if he had never sold one grill at that price, he would have still achieved his goal of cooking meat the best way possible at his home on a grill that would last.
Once he had achieved what he wanted, he realized there was no way he was going to be able to sell them cheaply without sacrificing the integrity of what he had achieved. In later years, he would attempt to build more affordable models to compete with other grill makers. Still, it simply was only possible by sacrificing the flavor, and quality people had come to expect.
He was unwilling to build anything he considered subpar to make a profit. The upside was that customers were investing in something that would outlast other grills for years and consistently produce the best method of cooking meat on the market. He was right. People are still making this investment 75 years later.
An American Company
“We are always going to stand on the principle we are an American company,” Parsons said. It was always that way. Because Hastings was a war veteran and highly patriotic, American pride was always at the company’s heart. There was never a compromise that the aspects needed to run the business would be taken overseas.
Hastings only hired American workers and bought American steel and other materials made in America. The current owner and president since 1995, Richard Alexander, continues with that tradition – even though outsourcing to other countries would be cheaper. Alexander and his team still hold true to the original American values Hastings put in place.
Another of these values is remaining in their niche market and controlling every aspect of quality. Parsons explained that Hasty Bake could have easily become a company of 25,000 employees, with other countries producing their components cheaper and with lesser quality – and even be available in major retailers at a much lesser cost to the consumer.
But the vision for the company was different. This is a practice and principle that every owner has continued. And with sales and profits continually rising, the company has made the right choice to remain a niche company that is proud to produce one hundred percent American-made products.
Parsons added that when supply chain issues were major concerns for companies who bought materials overseas during the Covid pandemic, Hasty Bake continued without issues due to only buying American. They are now the only grill manufacturer left that buys and is built completely in the United States. They refuse to outsource and create cheaper models.
This, of course, limits where they can market worldwide, but they happily accept this. They do have a few dealers around the world, but most are in the U.S. In the grand scheme of business life, they are happy to remain a large fish in a small pond where they can control every aspect of the legacy they are responsible for maintaining.
The Changing Of The Grill Master
Hasty Bake has changed hands a few times over the course of its existence. One of those owners was Home Metal Products out of Texas, who purchased the company in 1967, Parsons and Johnsen said. During this period, designs in appearance were introduced, and Hastings believed that concessions in quality had, unfortunately, been made as well. This troubled him to the point that he bought the company back in 1974.
After all, his name was on those grills. In addition, Hastings had always been hands-on with his customers and built friendships with these people. This was the beginning of the cult following that is still flourishing today. These people had no problem reaching out to him and telling him about what they saw as a drop in quality. When a person has these types of relationships and knows what people expect from a product with his name on it, he must have felt that he needed to step in. The quality Hastings had built his business on was restored shortly after reacquiring the company in 1974.
A New Beginning
All companies have their ups and downs, and in 1980 Hasty Bake had a devastating loss. A fire would destroy everything. The original designs, drawings, prints, products, history, and equipment were all taken in the fire. Johnsen explained that the company had to start from scratch, even to the point where those who had grills brought them back in for employees to measure and get information. Others donated sales pamphlets, photos, and brochures from the company’s history to help them get a new start.
It’s sad that so much history was lost in the fire. But the company has since collected and cataloged everything they have been able to acquire. Fortunately, Hastings would live for another 29 years and be able to help fill in many of the gaps from those early years. Despite this tragedy, Hastings and his employees were able to rebuild the company and continue with the legacy that still is going strong today. Six years after the fire, Hastings had finally decided it was time to move on for good. He sold the company for the last time in 1986.
There would be a couple of different owners after Hastings sold it, both hardcore Hasty Bake people who kept everything the way it was. In 1994, Alexander, who had been an engineer for the Ford Motor Company Glass Plant and not a hardcore fan at all, bought into the company because he was looking for an investment that was not corporate-oriented. It wouldn’t be long before that investment would turn south.
Due to some very bad marketing advice the company received, it took a major downturn. In fact, that first year Alexander came aboard, the company nearly went broke, Alexander comically recalls. It was so dire that Alexander’s partner wanted out and sold his half to Alexander in 1995. The company had been struggling when he bought in. Still, he believed his experience in manufacturing could help turn it around. He didn’t know anything about making grills by his own admission, but he would learn quickly.
Again, he laughed as he remembered those difficult early days of ownership and his first thought when he initially considered buying into the company. “Their main grills were selling for $800. Who pays $800 for a grill?!” he thought to himself. It seemed crazy to pay that much money for a grill. But after talking to a few people about what a Hasty Bake grill is, he eventually decided to ignite the coals and see what he could cook up.
In addition, he was tired of corporate America and wanted something different. This was certainly different and certainly not corporate. So, he found himself the owner of a company producing a product he knew very little about and was in financial trouble. It was “cook the meat or let it burn” at this point. He put on his metaphorical apron and began learning how to operate a business that is unusual in how many businesses are run. Selling top-quality products that last, and are not necessities, must be a business based on word-of-mouth sales instead of traditional marketing campaigns to boot since repeat customers are rare.
“It was a pretty deep hole we dug,” Alexander said of the mess he bought into that first year. “I just watched costs and did a lot of cooking demos working on building the name back up.” Getting dirty was also part of it. For the first six years, he did all the MIG and TIG welding on every grill and could run every piece of equipment in the shop. And he had to since money was tight, and he only had a few employees then.
Under his management, though, the company has grown to 100 employees, bringing the Hasty Bake name back into the mainstream. In the spirit of Grant Hastings, Alexander had revived the company as Hasting had done in the past. In addition, he started another division under the Hasty Bake umbrella for sheet metal fabrication. It turned out to be a gold mine and has grown exponentially along with the grill division.
Building A Legacy
“The thing about this company is that it is generational. You will hear many times that my grandfather cooked on a Hasty Bake, and now I am. I think too one of the most unique things about this company is that we are a company that can provide replacement parts for grills made in the 70’s and 80’s.
These are grills that have been handed down through generations because they are treasures to people who want to keep them,” Marketing Director Jennifer Bussell said. And to boot, these grills have such value they have even become items negotiated in divorce settlements, according to Hasty Bake Ambassador and Historian Jay Johnsen. That alone speaks volumes about the quality of these grills.
On a side note, Johnsen, dubbed the “Head Nerd of Hasty Bake,” is a treasure trove of historical information on Hastings and the company. Oh, and he is not even an employee! He is just one of those cult followers that love Hasty Bake so much that he adopted himself into the family. He even locates vintage grills from past eras around the country and restores them.
What is his most prized grill, you wonder? Well, it’s a piece of work, to put it mildly. It’s the one called “The Angus.” Built in 1962, it sold for $3500, or $34,397 in today’s dollars. It has a liquor cabinet, ice maker, table for six, umbrella, and Fiesta model grill. According to Johnsen, it is ten feet long, weighs 660 pounds, and is a work of art adorned with wrought iron.
Only three were made, and only two are still known to exist, making this a valuable piece of history. The three were sold to the wealthy Mullendore ranching family in Osage County, a wealthy Houston businessman (the one Jay now owns). The third one was given as a prize on the Price is Right television show. Johnsen found that one, too: it is in Maryland but in need of a full restoration. The one sold to the Mullendore family is the one that is still missing.
Although Hasty Bake has always streamlined models for production, Hastings, being an inventor, would design and manufacture “one-offs” to see if they would sell. Like the Angus grill, these were never put into full production. Another interesting idea Hasty Bake put into practice was designing grills for homes with vent hoods to make them practical for indoor cooking. This was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Well Done, Mr. Hastings… Well Done
It’s difficult to tell a story spanning 75 years in an article format. For most, that amount of time is a lifetime. And like a life with any longevity, there is so much information wrapped within; it would take another lifetime to tell it all. This company is alive and has lived an incredible 75 years – at times on life support – but always pulling through to another tomorrow. This is part of what makes their story so worthy of being told and such a treasure to Oklahomans. And those who have been and are currently involved are part of this life and thus part of its continuing legacy.
There are names, dates, and events, both past and present, that would fill up the pages of a thick novel, just as any life would do, but that is not a part of this story. They are as important as what is included and, more than that, part of everything Oklahoma, everything American, and everything a company should be. There is so much more to tell. But at least for those of us who have never had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of this company, we now have an introduction to a life that has substantially impacted so many.
Essentially, the Hasty Bake history reads as good as any great novel with Grant Hastings as the main character. A war hero, inventor, business owner, father, husband, and friend. He was funny, quirky, involved, and driven to the point that he not only perfected the method for cooking meat outside but created a slice of Americana in the process. Each page of that book would have an anecdote, tragedy, challenge, or success to enthrall every reader fortunate enough to read the amazing and unique story that began all those years ago.
Within the words of this article are but a few of the highlights of an incredible plot carried out by numerous people across the decades who all helped create the story that is Hasty Bake. Each of them carried a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit that was forged by two men long ago who believed that if they could grill it, people would come.
And in the end, after a lifetime of experiences, there would be one thing our main character would leave us with: “It’s the hood that does the good.” And “Turn the heat, not the meat.” Wise words from the man that started one of America’s favorite pastimes.
Hasty Bake Fun Facts: Hasty Bake was selected by the State Department to represent the United States at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and won the Hess Award in 1962. Their grills have been on display in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
Hasty Bake is located at 1313 South Lewis in Tulsa. Stop by and check out their showroom and merchandise, including Grant Hastings’ cookbook, or visit with a few people who want to tell you a story about the man who gave us all the pastime of backyard grilling.
Special thanks to Richard Alexander, Nick Parsons, Jennifer Bussell, Tiffany Atkins, and Jay Johnsen for their time and input, which made this article possible.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means we may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that we have recommended. While clicking these links won’t cost you any extra money, they will help us keep this site up and running and support our work. Thank you for your support!