After 14 years, $4 million, 35,000 pounds of fried turkey and uncounted thousands of pounds of potatoes, fish, bacon and other fried delicacies — much of it consumed by firefighters at station houses in Beverly Hills and Coldwater Canyon — Ron Popeil is ready to bring to market his greatest invention.
You’ve seen him on late night TV, hawking his revolutionary products. The blue eyes blazing with entrepreneurial zeal. The helmet of shoe-polish black hair. The meaty, sensual, Brando-esque lips formed into a broad, porcelain-veneered smile. The stentorian voice, like a boardwalk huckster’s.
But wait! There’s more!
Popeil has been called the Einstein of the Infomercial. The Hemingway of Home Shopping. The Salesman of the Century. He’s played himself on The Simpsons and has been parodied on Saturday Night Live. Weird Al Yankovic even produced a song about him, on which Popeil’s half-sister sang all the backup parts. Since he made his first commercial, in the early 1950s for the Chop-O-Matic hand food processor (“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to show you the greatest kitchen appliance ever made.”), he’s been copied by every television pitchman and woman who has plied the airwaves.
Popeil has brought us such enduring products as Mr. Microphone, the Smokeless Ashtray, the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, the Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator and his spray-on remedy for bald spots, GLH Formula #9. (The GLH stands for Great Looking Hair. Like all the rest, he came up with the name himself.
His most lucrative product to date, the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ, has earned more than $1.4 billion worldwide. Maybe you’ve seen the infomercial: The charismatic salesman demonstrating from the pulpit of his in-studio kitchen. The rapt audience in folding chairs. The call and response.
Just set it…
AND FORGET IT!
Popeil began selling as a 13-year-old, pushing Chop-O-Matics for $3.95 — “All your onions chopped to perfection without shedding a single tear” — on Chicago’s Maxwell Street, a bustling city bazaar catering to tastes both high and low.
Now, on a sunny afternoon more than 60 years later, he is found in the spacious kitchen-cum-R&D center of his art-filled home in Beverly Hills. Wearing a blue apron and an air of crotchety determination, the 80-year-old Popeil is readying himself for yet another demo of his most amazing product yet. He’s hoping it could be the last.
In two hours, a wealthy investor from China will be walking through the door with a trusted advisor. Her name is Sue, or maybe it’s Hsu. He should have done more research, but he just hasn’t had the time. Popeil has been told by an intermediary that Hsu is “a real estate mogul billionaire who’s very into health and well-being.” She wants to find a product she can purchase, own, brand and sell in China, Europe, the U.S. and South America.
It just so happens that Popeil has exactly the thing she needs.
He gestures with a meaty hand, the nails perfectly manicured, toward the object sitting before him on the butcher-block counter, Ron Popeil’s™ 5in1 Fryer™.
Manufactured in China to exacting standards — one of the reasons for all the years and expense — the 5in1 Fryer™ cooks a 15-pound turkey in 46 minutes, or 2 full pounds of thick bacon in 10 minutes. It steams, it boils, it makes rice. It can even bake bread, cakes or muffins in a fraction of the normal time. That it seems to do four things and not five is beside the point. What’s most important is this: Due to new regulations for home fryers that have recently gone into effect around the world, there is nothing like Popeil’s fryer on the market today. Yes folks, Ron Popeil’s™ 5in1 Fryer™ is the only product available on the planet that can cook an entire turkey using only 5 liters of cooking oil, the mandated safe limit.
Over the past five years, Popeil says, the most popular fryer in the world, the Butterball Turkey Fryer, has sold 200,000 units on QVC. It has been available in 20,000 stores nationwide.
But unfortunately for Butterball, even the smallest model requires 8 liters of cooking oil. The product has been discontinued.
Leaving only one option, according to Popeil: Ron Popeil’s™ 5in1 Fryer™.
“If each of the 20,000 stores sells 24 pieces in 12 months, you make over $12 million pure profit,” Popeil says in his practiced cadence, warming up for his pitch. “That’s every year. Because Thanksgiving is not going away! And every day people make bacon, people fry chicken and french fries, people steam vegetables and clams and lobster. People boil eggs — 36 hard boiled eggs in 8 minutes. It boils pasta, and strains it. It also bakes bread. Make a pizza bread or a whole wheat nut bread in an hour and twenty minutes.”
How much would you expect to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime value?
If ever a man needed to make a place for himself in the world it was Ron Popeil.
Born in May 1935 in the Bronx, his parents divorced when he was three. “Neither of them wanted me or my older brother Jerry, so they dumped us and sent us off to a boarding school in upstate New York,” Popeil says. “We were a liability they chose not to accept. Most of the early years were so painful that I blocked much of it out.”
He does have one vivid memory of that era, he says. It was parents’ visiting day. All the other kids had visitors. “I stood in the middle of this straight road that seemed to go on for an eternity, hoping to see a speck of a car coming in my direction, thinking that my family would come to visit us, but they never did.” To this day he can remember the feeling, “just sitting on the road, crying, waiting for my mother and father.”
When Popeil was eight, his paternal grandparents “suddenly showed up one day, unannounced,” and took the boys to Miami. The family lived frugally on a “poor people’s diet” of chicken feet, bean soup and potatoes. “My grandmother was the kind who would take advantage of coupons and sales, and walk miles to save 50 cents.” His grandfather, Isadore, a Polish immigrant, was unemployed, “a mean, unhappy man who didn’t believe in anybody or anything,” Popeil says. “I never called him grandpa or even Isadore. He never had a name as far as I was concerned.”
Five years later, the grandparents packed up the boys and moved to Chicago, where their son and Ron’s father, Sam Popeil, ran a company with his brother Raymond that manufactured kitchen products. The boys lived with their grandparents. Sam Popeil lived in a hotel. On weekends, the grandparents would take the boys down to the Popeil Brothers factory and everybody would go to work. The boys did a lot of cleaning up and packaging. “I didn’t even get a chance to see my father because he was never there on the weekends,” Popeil says.
When he was 13, in 1948, Popeil begged his father to allow him to go to Maxwell Street and try his hand at sales.
The Maxwell Street Market was established in the late nineteenth century by newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Over the years, other races and cultures were attracted to the Market; it was sometimes called the Ellis Island of the Midwest. An economic hub for poor people looking to get ahead, almost anything was available at deep discounts — new or secondhand, pirated or hijacked, few questions were asked about the provenance of items for sale, even though the old Chicago Police Academy was just adjacent on O’Brien Street.
“The first time I went there,” Popeil says, “the proverbial lightbulb went on over my head. I saw all these people selling products, pocketing money and my mind went racing.”
Popeil gathered up a number of kitchen products from his father’s factory — “he sold them to me at wholesale, so he made a full profit” — and went down to Maxwell Street at five o’clock one Sunday morning.
“I pushed. I yelled. I hawked. And it worked! I was stuffing money into my pockets, more money than I had ever seen in my life.”
At that moment, Popeil says, he realized he’d found his calling.
“I figured out that sales could help me escape from the poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents. I had lived for 13 years in homes without love. Now I finally found a form of affection — and a human connection — through sales.”
From then on, the course of his life was set.
On days he didn’t go to school, young Popeil would be at the Market at the crack of dawn to prepare 50 pounds each of onions, cabbages and carrots, and 100 pounds of potatoes to use in his demonstrations. He’d work the crowds all day long, bringing in as much as $500, a fortune at the time. In his late teens, he began traveling to state and county fairs; eventually he got himself a prime spot inside the Woolworth’s department store in Chicago’s Loop, the top-grossing Woolworth’s location in the country.
When not working, Popeil lived the high life. He dined at the Pump Room, wore a Rolex, rented hotel suites. In pictures from the period, he carries himself like a matinee idol; eventually he moved his offices to the Playboy Building. Over the years, he’d count among his friends such titans of industry as hotelier Steve Wynn. “He was mesmerizing,” says Mel Korey, Popeil’s college friend and first business partner. “There were secretaries who would take their lunch break at Woolworth’s to watch him because he was so good-looking.”
In summer 1964, after the Veg-O-Matic was introduced, Popeil founded Ronco. Already aware what television could do for his products, he shot a two-minute commercial for the handy dandy kitchen appliance, a descendant of the Chop-O-Matic, which sliced and diced fruits and vegetables. Then he set out across the Midwest to persuade local stores to carry the product. Once that was accomplished, Popeil and Korey visited local TV stations and bought the cheapest airtime they could find — often late at night. The cost to Popeil for a Veg-O-Matic was $3.42. They sold it to the stores for $7.46. The retail price was $9.95.
Once the commercials ran, stores could hardly keep the product on the shelves. Popeil never looked back.
In his piece on Popeil, “The Pitchman,” written at the turn of the century, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell sums up beautifully the nut of Popeil’s success:
“Why did the Veg-O-Matic sell so well? Doubtless, Americans were eager for a better way of slicing vegetables. But it was more than that: the Veg-O-Matic represented a perfect marriage between the medium (television) and the message (the gadget). … More specifically, you could train the camera on the machine and compel viewers to pay total attention to the product you were selling. TV allowed you to do even more effectively what the best pitchmen strove to do in live demonstrations — make the product the star.”
In his Beverly Hills kitchen, surrounded by his collection of olive oil bottles from around the world, Popeil readies the raw materials for his demonstration. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oil collection, more than 2,400 bottles — displayed in glass-front cabinets and in every available nook and cranny — is the world’s largest, one of his few personal indulgences, he says, along with his 43-foot custom-made, gunmetal gray Almar fishing boat, the Pocket Fisherman. (He has no idea how many gallons of canola oil he has used in the 14 years developing Ron Popeil’s™ 5in1 Fryer™. “No doubt it could float my boat,” Popeil muses.)
As he has done since he was a youngster, Popeil has gone to the market himself to carefully select each piece of food for the demo. There are onions for chopping and tomatoes for slicing — each one as large and as perfect in appearance as he could find. There are turkeys, chicken parts, bacon slices and a whole fish to fry.
And, because the potential investor is Chinese, there are boxes of fried squid and frozen wontons.
“The thing is this,” he says, pulling the guts out of one of the turkeys, “my goal here is to sell the project to somebody, not to go back into business. There’s nothing that will get me to go back into business. That’s what I don’t want to do anymore! What a headache! How many employees do you have? Do you have insurance? Where’s your warehouse? How many secretaries? Who’s running customer service? What’s your lease like where you are?That’s running a business. And that’s what I no longer want to do.
“What I want to do is continue inventing more products. Because inventing isn’t work. That’s doing what I want, when I want to do it, which in my mind is the real secret to life, the true sign of success. It’s not money. It’s not power. It’s doing what you want, when you want to do it. That’s the golden ticket, right? So here I’ve created a situation that’s quite interesting.”
The kitchen grows quiet as he thrusts the turkey’s pale carcass beneath the faucet and gives it a warm bath. At 15 pounds, the turkey is about the size of a 10-week-old infant.
“George Foreman got $138 million of stock and cash for the rights to his grill,” Popeil says thoughtfully. “Wolfgang Puck got $22 million for the rights to his soups. Those are both solid names. But neither of them have over 50 years in the business.”
How much would you expect to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime value?
His blue eyes blaze. His voice rises in volume, like a carnival barker’s.
“I’m not looking for $200 million. I’m not even looking for $100 million. Not even $50 million!”
Operators are standing by.
Mike Sager is features editor at MEL. He previously wrote about a man living off the grid in the suburbs of San Diego.