Something primal clicks on in many of us when we grill — the wafting smell, the slow process, the often communal aspect of it.
Ben West founded Spark Grills in 2017 with a goal to help make grilling an even better experience by developing a system that doesn’t use propane or charcoal.
The grill features the patented Spark Briq, a fusion of wood and charcoal that comes in a variety of options, some designed for higher heat and others for longer, slower burns. The Briqs slide in a special section of Spark Grills’ custom-designed porcelain enameled-steel grill, which makes cleaning and replacing the fuel easy.
Tuning the Briq as fuel to work with the hardware, Ben and his team created a grill that heats two to three times faster than traditional charcoal and provides precision control from smoking brisket at 225 degrees Fahrenheit to baking wood-fired Neapolitan pizza at 905 degrees Fahrenheit, and everything in between.
The grill, available for $799, fires up in seconds and features an oven-like temperature control.
Headquartered at 6837 Winchester Cir, the company launched an email waitlist in March 2020 with the official pre-order opening this month. Spark Grills has raised $8.66 million.
Democratizing the joy of grilling
Ben, who moved the company to Boulder in January 2019, began developing the grill line while living in Portland, Oregon, before raising money in San Francisco and moving operations there for its first 18 months.
Ben’s passion for cooking with wood and charcoal began with EcoZoom, a company he founded in 2011 to provide a high-efficiency cookstove to developing countries, which he scaled from a startup with a $40,000 fund to a company with programs in Mexico, Rwanda, Kenya and several other African countries.
While heading up the Kenya office and creating its sales, customer and market divisions, Ben moved to Nairobi, Kenya, for a couple years where he spent a lot of time camping and getting out to the backcountry with friends and fell in love with outdoor cooking.
“There’s an evolutionary draw to cooking with flame,” said Ben. “It’s sincere and the food tastes great. 95 percent of the population has a draw to cooking that way.”
When he moved back to Portland from Kenya, he found the urban environment not as conducive to cooking in the way he had grown to love. Propane was “fine” but eliminates the smoke flavor of classic grilling and the option of hitting high temperatures.
Ben decided to lean into his background to create something new and different. Whereas EcoZoom focuses on clean combustion and emissions efficiency, Spark Grills provides an accessible, friendly and convenient cooking experience.
Growing in Boulder
While living in California, Ben raised money from a couple of Front Range investors, including V1.VC, Bullish, Kokopelli, Batshit Crazy Ventures and Gan Ventures, and began coming here to work with them and meet other investors.
In Boulder, he saw an opportunity not present in San Francisco — the freedom and accessibility to spend more time outside while growing Spark Grills in a thriving startup and food scene. Boulder’s vibrant food network, both in agriculture and restaurateurs, added an unplanned bonus, said Ben, proving really helpful to Spark’s goal of having a food safe fuel.
He also felt Boulder’s mindset attracted people with a similar outlook as himself, both personally and professionally. Some other local startups that Ben admires include Boulder-built Sunday lawn care, Misty Robotics, and Emergy Foods, a company developing a plant-based meat product from mushrooms.
“Boulder has a lot of really great professional opportunities,” says Ben, “but also allows you to get outdoors and pursue your passions. It has the best of both worlds, and our whole team is like that; we crank through work and go do our stuff.”
Since moving to Boulder 15 months ago, Ben has grown Spark’s office to 26 employees, all local. For Ben, the move to Boulder represented a commitment to a lifestyle he could truly stand behind and build a brand around.
“It’s a lot more of a flow state here,” says Ben, “which is great for productivity. In much of my life, I didn’t have the guts to do it my way and lived in places for the opportunity I was working in as opposed to making the opportunity go where I wanted to be”
Along with earned media, such as an inclusion in The New York Times Style Magazine, Ben attributes the swell of Spark’s wait list to the slowed-down pace of life brought on by Covid-19, as everybody travels less and spends more time at home cooking.
Header Image: Delicious home-made food made easy and accessible. Image: Spark Grills.