Ask Lloyd Cooper, and he’ll tell you his current project was born of COVID-19.
“The most interesting ideas come out of personal need,” says Cooper, whose Push Product Design has created intricate medical equipment, as well as the McWane Center’s iconic High Cycle and Linear Motion exhibits. “In the middle of COVID, we were sitting outside a lot. We have a small patio in our backyard, and we have a firepit and like to cook outside, too, but we don’t have enough room on the patio to have a grill and a firepit, also.”
Around the same time, Cooper’s friend Gray Shipley, co-founder of Jones Valley Fabrication in Oneonta, was trying to come up with projects that could keep his employees at work even during the lean times.
“We had some times in the steel shop where things could get a little bit slow, and I was trying to think of something we could build, put on the shelf and sell that could create additional work for the guys and balance things out,” he says.
The answer for both men was a firepit. Not just any firepit, but the Flatiron Firepit, a combination backyard firepit and carbon steel grill.
“There are a few of them out there, but it’s not common,” Shipley says of the new product. “It’s a different way of thinking about how to get more utility out of your firepit.”
For Shipley to help create a new way to grill isn’t a total surprise to those who know him. Not only has the entrepreneur helped start, turn around and lead several companies, his family has been farming in North Carolina for 150 years.
“My granddad’s granddad started Shipley Farms in 1852,” Shipley says. “Basically, we raise livestock, primarily cattle. … My granddad retired from cattle farming at about 90, and at age 101, decided he was bored, wrote a book and got back into cattle farming in about 2014. He and my dad and I got together and came up with branded meat products.”
Shipley’s grandfather died a couple of years later at 103, but his father, 74, is “still pretty much full-time on the farm.” Shipley helps from afar with the marketing and financials, and Shipley Farms now has a healthy mail-order business while also providing beef to some North Carolina restaurants.
All of that to say, Shipley knows how to grill a steak.
“I had experimented with different ways to cook our meat, and my idea, based on the South American-style plancha grill, was a firepit you could throw a top on top of and grill on that,” Shipley says. “You can season carbon steel just as you can cast iron, like your grandmother’s seasoned cast-iron pan.”
Armed with the idea, the ball was in Cooper’s court, and the first thing he did was research.
“There’s a company in Europe that created a grill that’s similar
to this that’s the conventional grilling height, but I had never seen anybody make it as a form factor that’s at a grill height,” he says. “The idea is kind of like a doughnut — put the fire in the center and, based on how far away you get from the center, you can get different temperatures. You can do everything from cook a steak to sauté onions and mushrooms.”
Cooper designed prototypes, and Shipley’s crew would make them.
“I basically studied the proportions of a regular firepit and built proportions similar to that,” he says. “It’s a comfortable surface to sit around. The diameter of the cooking surface is 30 inches and there’s a ring around it to act as a spacer.
If children or dogs are around the fire, they can’t bump the grill or the edge
And along the way, Cooper and his family ate like kings, thanks to his partner.
“Gray is an exceptional cook, and he brought over breakfasts and lunches and dinners and kind of prepared food nonstop to test it,” Cooper recalls. And he discovered that since the grill master cooks as others sit around the Flatiron Firepit, “it’s a very cool social event.”
Shipley says that Cooper came up with “something special.”
“The combination of elegance and simplicity and the mindset he has to bring these design elements together resulted in something really cool, really functional, really simple,” he says.
Fulfilling a Mission
For Shipley, it’s something more. It’s a way for him to expand his work at Jones Valley Fabrication, which has as part of its mission to “transform people.” And by people, the company means its employees, as well as its clients.
“Part of our mission is to create second-chance jobs for people out of rehab, or a prison re-entry situation, or that sort of thing,” Shipley says. “You don’t have to go to seminary and learn Greek and Hebrew to have a good impact on society and reflect the love of Christ.”
Jones Valley specializes in custom fabricated plate work for a variety of sectors, including oil and gas, power generation, air pollution control, mining and wastewater.
The company has clients across the country.
Shipley is working with Magic City Woodworks to build a tabletop for the Flatiron Grills. The mission of that company — founded by Lawrence Sheffield — is similar to that of Jones Valley. “We take some younger guys who maybe haven’t made all the right decisions in life but need to learn some job skills and life skills and the discipline to show up to work on time,” Shipley says.
Rolling it Out
The Flatiron Firepit sells for $1,295 and is available for pre-order at flatironfirepits.com. Shipley has his sights set on retail outlets, such as outdoor and patio stores, too. The carbon-steel firepits come pre-seasoned and are “fairly indestructible,” Shipley says. “You want to take good care of it, but if you get a little rust on it, you brush it off, scrub it down, sand it, put some oil on it, and it’s kind of good as new.”
For Cooper, whose company researches and develops next-generation products for mostly large corporations, he’s happy to have a part in designing something his family can use and enjoy.
“If it’s a medical product, they hear me talk about it but never really see it,” he says. “It’s really fun to have something I can use at home with my family.”
And he’s still perfecting the Flatiron Grill.
“I’m kind of never done with things,” Cooper says. “I’m kind of a tinkerer. We’re eager to see how people respond to it, but I’m always looking for things to improve.”
This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.