CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of public relations firm Mace+Carmichael PR.
Larry Bradford is a person who drives down the road, encounters or sees a pothole and wonders why someone has not come up with something better than asphalt that would dramatically increase the length of time a patched pothole stays patched.
"It just never made sense to me why someone in the world has not come up with that solution," Bradford said.
The 60-year-old Bradford found himself considering another significant question in the parking lot of an Alabama football game in 2014. Two of his three adult children attended Alabama.
"At Alabama, they sell everything," said Bradford, who moved back to his hometown in 2010 after a successful 18 years in an Atlanta partnership that provided patented software and apparatus for wastewater systems. "Towels, wastebaskets, everything. It all has Alabama on it. I was just standing at a tailgate in 2014 and noticed that the grills had no Alabama on it. That was the beginning of my trek."
The trek was Bradford's path to creating a customized top and customized timer for Big Green Egg Kamado grills. He spent two years in development of the product and has a patent pending.
Bradford formed Armor Shields LLC in 2017 and began selling product in 2019. Bradford retained local marketing firm Maycreate and Mace+Carmichael Public Relations to prepare the product for market, including its website (armorshields.com) and e-commerce system.
"I was intrigued by the internet and started thinking about a product that would work there," said Bradford, who grew up in Brainerd and graduated from McCallie in 1977. "I knew if China could make it, I was a dead man. I didn't want a store where you have a boundary where you are only as good as the people around you. The whole Amazon concept interested me because it was like a store in the sky with no boundaries. I just needed a project."
Bradford used his experience at research to go beyond Google to search for someone making customized tops for Big Green Egg grills. He found nothing. He called his Chattanooga patent attorney Steve Stark, his patent attorney, and told him what he had found..
"He didn't believe me because, like me, he didn't think that made sense," said Bradford. "He called back and said he couldn't find anything either. He told me to come on down and write it up."
Bradford designed and engineered the manufacturing tool needed to create the top. He said the most difficult step was determining how far off the actual grill the specially coated top would need to be in order not to be hot for grills that can reach 700 degrees. He started at one-quarter inch above the grill. After manufacturing several prototypes, he found the right height, which is just shy of an inch.
"The toilet is still the greatest invention of all time because of its simplicity, maybe the twist tie for bread," said Bradford. "I wanted something simple, two components, and you can install the grill top with a 7/16th wrench and four spring clips."
Bradford said he has about $250,000 invested in the business and plans to scale the company slowly through licensing agreements with universities and relationships with local retailers. He said Big Green Egg has more than 5,000 retail outlets in 20 countries, but he said the potential market is in the millions for current users who want to retrofit an existing grill.
"If I hadn't had the time to do all the design work, testing and changes, it would have taken me 18 months and another $200,000 to get ready," said Bradford.
Consumer Reports' review of the Big Green Egg said the widely used Kamado grill has developed a "cult-like following, with devotees who call themselves Eggheads." The Big Green Egg website features labeled accessories of all descriptions, but no grill tops. The Big Green Egg Company started in 1974 in Tucker, Georgia.
It's the "Eggheads" market that dovetails into Bradford's belief that Armor Shields will succeed since the product is "purely driven by a passion for grilling, and what could be better than putting your favorite college decal on something you love," said Bradford. He said the customized tops can include anything from a picture to a signature and range from $150 and $250 while a customized timer will retail for $40.
Bradford's belief was affirmed when he was contacted by the daughter of former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who wanted one for her father. The silver and red top shipped to Meyer in time for Father's Day in June. That relationship led to a licensing agreement with the university. Last week, Bradford secured a licensing agreement covering both the University of Tennessee and UTC.
Armor Shields, both with customized artwork and standard design, are now available at Elder's Ace Hardware in East Brainerd and the Patio Shop located near downtown Chattanooga. It's part of Bradford's marketing strategy focused on aligning with a few, targeted retail outlets with a product that can appeal to grill owners worldwide.
"It's an accessory item, like shoes or bumpers on your car," said Ace store manager Harold Stockburger, who said his store is the leading seller of Big Green Eggs in the Chattanooga region. "The guy who wants to cook hamburger, chicken or steak will get a gas grill. The guy who wants to do more, control it all right down to temperature, will lean to the Big Green Egg."
Stockburger learned of the Armor Shields tops through a post on Instagram.
"He called me and said, 'Hey, you're in Chattanooga. We're in Chattanooga. Why don't you come over and let's talk,' " said Bradford. "It's kind of cool that we have something new created in Chattanooga that will begin being sold first in Chattanooga."
Stockburger said Traeger grills, popular with younger customers, have cut into a 2-1 sales advantage Big Green Egg grills had over gas grills two years ago. He said today that Big Green Egg sales were about half of his sales with the other half being Traeger or Weber grills.
"You can control the Traeger grill from your phone, and that is where it hits home for younger people," said Stockburger.
The company's first marketing promotion will be this month with Mossy Oak, a Mississippi–based branded camouflage and outdoor lifestyle company. The Armor Shield top to be given away is a camouflage design that is part of the standard offering.
Armor Shields has offices and manufacturing space on Shallowford Road near the airport. Bradford is appreciative of every day he can go to and from work in Chattanooga.
"We were looking for a second home because we needed to spend more time with my wife's parents," said Bradford. "We found a house on the lake in Soddy-Daisy and just fell back in love with Chattanooga. I found myself dreading to go back to Atlanta. When I was young, I dreaded coming back here and loved going back to Atlanta. It flipped on me, totally flipped."
Now, perhaps the contented Bradford could just engineer the ultimate fix for a pothole.
Test Drive: Volkswagen Jetta GLI leaps into action with turbo-charged engine and six-speed manual transmission