Mad Dog and Merrill Midwest Grill’n Buddies had a decade of grill demos and socializing under their belts when they began traveling outside the state in the 1990s.
They both consider that decade the heyday of their careers.
“The Home and Garden shows is where we hit our stride,” says Merrill. “For one thing, we got to be good friends real quick with Jerry Baker, ‘America’s Master Gardener’, who we met back stage at a show.” Baker was the master of alternative gardening solutions.
“He was a great guy to everyone,” adds Mad Dog. “Eventually he told us to get off our fat butts and make some money. He’s the one who suggested we write a cookbook.” He also urged them to stay with the Home and Garden Show circuit. That led to notoriety with the planners and promoters of the shows all over the country. The Grill’n Buddies gained a reputation of showing up early and never messing up. “We’ve worked the Milwaukee-Sentinel Sports Show for 20 years running, and plenty of other shows ask us back year after year,” says Mad Dog.
“We’d arrive three days before the shows for TV and radio appearances to pump up the show, and people would come out to the shows to see us.”
In those days Mad Dog and Merrill put on many, many miles. “I had two Chrysler 5th Avenue’s in the 90s. I figured I might as well be comfortable,” recalls Mad Dog. In 1992 he treated himself to a brand new Road Master. “We were stylin’ in those days.”
The business partners were now enjoying better quality hotels and didn’t have to share a room. Mad Dog finally got a good night’s sleep, being away from Merrill’s heavy snoring. “I slept in the bathtub more than once before we made enough (money) to have separate rooms!” says Mad Dog. “We haven’t shared a room in 20 years I don’t think.”
A milestone for Mad Dog in the early ’90s was the loss of 100 pounds. “The joke is I lost it and Merrill found it, although he never got that big,” says Mad Dog. Mad Dog also met his soul mate and life partner, Lori Stiebs on Sept. 28, 1991. Their daughter Sage was born in 1992 and is now a freshman at Stevens Point.
Merrill’s family increased in numbers with the addition of another son. He was happy to take Seth, Kirk and wife Diane to locations whenever he could. “We had some great times in Florida doing the shows, and the family could enjoy Disney and all the other sights.”
“There were more Packers fans at the stadium than Tampa Bay fans at times,” said Merrill, referring to the amount of snowbirds in Florida during football season. The Hilton staff was asking them how to set up a tailgate party.
With their names being recognized more and more by fans, they were hired for customer appreciation cookouts, anniversary parties and the like. Their stage shows became more polished and professional. Their cookbooks went with them to every show. “We order 3,000 every year and have done so for 20 years. You do the math. I guess that’s a lotta books,” said Mad Dog.
Merrill recalls a day in the mid-90’s when he was mowing his lawn on Smith Street in New London and his wife, Diane, tried to wave him in for a phone call, saying he had to take this one. Wanting her to take a message so he could finish his task, Diane shook her head and said, ‘No Gary, you don’t understand. Paula Zahn from the CBS Morning Show is on the phone!’
“We never realized how many people had seen us and how the word was spreading that we were funny, clever grillers who were also dependable,” said Merrill. The Morning Show sent a crew to Milwaukee and the Grill’n Buddies did a live, nationwide TV segment at the harbor.
Over the years many talent agents have approached them, and each would tell them to warn their families, because they would be so busy they wouldn’t get to see them. The partners would roll their eyes and keep doing what they were already doing – promoting themselves. “Merrill has always been our manager,” says Mad Dog. “He does all the bookings and we have total control of our business.” They were now booked consecutive years at major Home and Garden shows.
Merrill recalls that in Kansas City, Paul Kirk was sitting in the front row of a packed audience. Kirk is one of the most accomplished barbecue chefs and pit masters in the world with 425 cooking awards, including seven World Barbecue Championships. C. Clark “Smoky” Hale, notable barbeque ‘baster’, author and publisher, was sitting next to him. Mad Dog and Merrill were floored that they took the time to watch one of their shows. Later, the barbeque kings told them that grilling was another ball game altogether, and invited them into their Kansas City Royal event to lead classes in grilling.
Merle Ellis (the Butcher) nationally known to the public through his own television series Cookin’ USA on the Nashville Network, invited the pair to his show. They watched an entire days taping. “It was a thrill and a huge learning experience for us,” recalls Merrill.
As kingpins of the Home and Garden Show circuit, they recall meeting TV favorites Martin Yen with ‘Wok This Way’ cooking show, Steve Thomas and Norm Abrams from ‘This Old House’ and Ty Pennington.
“Now that I look back at it, we had all these contacts, yet we didn’t get caught up in being a celebrity. We had our homes in New London and still do.” Many times they would be picked up by limousine at an airport and put up in fancy hotels, only to return to the place they call home and their down to earth lifestyle.
When you think about where the true Packer tailgate grilling tradition began, it is an arguable point whether Mad Dog and Merrill had a significant amount of influence in the scheme of things.
During the football season, the ‘America’s Pack Fan Club’ was heating up at Lambeau Field parking lot. In the late 1980s,Mad Dog and Merrill were hired as grillers for the pre-game event. They corded off a small section of parking lot and served 300 bratwurst for the crowd.
“Well,” said Mad Dog as though he were reliving it again, “this grew and grew into the 1990’s and from hundreds of brats to thousands and finally 10,000 brats and 55 kegs of beer before noon. We had to start grilling at 5 a.m. and 100 parking spots were needed for the crowd. We used six huge grills we had made especially for the Packer games. Half the time we’d go home and fall into bed and miss the game. Once in a while they let us in to sit on the mats with the press people and watch the game. Yah, those were crazy days.”
Fox 11 Sports and WTMJ Radio wanted a piece of the Grill’n Buddies before kickoff, too.
“We got some huge endorsements from Hillshire Farm and other sausage companies over the years,” says Merrill. “It’s really been a great ride.”
====North of the border
Being standout Cheese Heads, they didn’t try to pass themselves off as Canadians, but were invited to the All Canada Show 18 years ago. Besides touring in Toronto, Edmunton and Calgarie, the All Canada Show went to the states, too. At KMOX Radio in St. Louis, they did a morning show segment with Norm ‘The Great’ McCreight, a hunting and fishing guide. The station asked them to grill a walleye while on the air. They started out by asking an intern to hold a fire extinguisher. A curry seasoning mixture was added to the fish and it was served up to the fishing guide and disc jockeys. They all marveled over it, and Mad Dog and Merrill were relieved. Nobody else knew, but it was the first time they had attempted grilling fish.
“That’s the way we operate now, and always have,” says Merrill. “It keeps things fresh for us – ad libbing is where we thrive.”
One of just a handful of times this method got them in hot water. Doing a promotion for turkey burgers in Atlanta during the Olympics, they prepared a Red, White and Blue Burger – using turkey, blue cheese, tomato and onion. Within 15 minutes of the airing, a major soda pop sponsor informed them to never again use that name, as they held license to it.
====Sauces and Seasonings
Through the years Merrill has been asked hundreds of times to make a batch of barbeque sauce for fans. He’d blend them a little different each time, using family and friends as taste testers, perfecting his recipes.
Mad Dog was busy too, playing with seasonings. Being the consummate food artist, he preps the food before putting it on the grill. He’d put garlic with other herbs and use course ingredients for rubs.
This year, Mad Dog and Merrill are launching three varieties of both sauces and seasonings. Festival Foods jumped on board with their idea and Oct. 23 all Festival food stores in Wisconsin will carry their Midwest Grill’n Buddies products.
“These are true Midwest sauces and seasonings you can use on the food you already buy each week. They’re not exotic, you can use them on hamburgers if you want to,” explains Merrill.
Next week in the County Post East, read about the turn of the century to present day for the partners, how their TV show is taking off, plus future plans.