CHICAGO | Gary native and former White Sox slugger Ron Kittle is combining two of his favorite things – baseball and food – in his latest business venture.
Kittle's autograph adorns the side of the baseball-shaped, tailgate-sized charcoal grill, which comes with a signed barbecue apron and a spatula that imprint's Kittle's signature on burgers or anything else being grilled.
The grill, spatula and apron are the brainchild of Bernie DiMeo, founder and owner of Hot Sports Grills.
DiMeo, a life-long White Sox fan, owned the DiMeo and Co. advertising agency for more than 20 years. The White Sox were clients of the advertising agency and managed commercials for the team in the 1980s.
DiMeo first met Kittle while filming commercials for the Sox in 1983, the year Kittle was named American League Rookie of the Year.
"He was just a nut," DiMeo said. "You'd hand him a script and he'd say, 'Why don't I do this instead?' and it was always hilarious."
DiMeo and Kittle's paths crossed again in the late 1990s when Kittle was serving as manager of the Schaumburg Flyers minor league team. DiMeo filmed commercials for the Flyers with Kittle starring as himself and as the character "Ma Kittle."
After DiMeo closed his ad agency earlier this year, he opened a smaller public relations firm and an apparel company specializing in custom-designed T-shirts.
He always had an idea for a business opportunity in the back of his mind after his wife purchased a football-shaped grill at a garage sale for $5. It always got a lot of attention when the DiMeo's were tailgating, he said.
He initially tried to get the rights to college team logos with the intention of selling the football-shaped grills in college towns.
"That was not a good business plan," he said. "It was too costly to get the rights and time consuming, then by the time I'd get them, I'd only sell one, maybe two. It wasn't worth it."
He decided instead to change the venture into a business-to-business plan in which businesses put their logos on the football-shaped grills and sell or give them away in promotions.
"I thought I would like to do something with baseball with opening day coming up, but I knew I couldn't do it with Major League Baseball," DiMeo said, noting the time and expense involved in licensing agreements.
Then he remembered Kittle.
"I thought here's a guy I can pick up the phone and talk to who is the best marketer I've ever seen who I can trust with a handshake and his word," DiMeo said.
DiMeo called Kittle on a Friday and that Monday, the pair met at O'Brien's Restaurant and Bar in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. Kittle saw the grill, signed it and took promotional photos.
"He's the kind of guy who will self-promote which is perfect for this product," DiMeo said.
Kittle said the grill is great for collectors and will, "definitely stand out in their autographed baseball collection."
"It's just a fun little sports grill, just a fun product for tailgating," Kittle said.