Alumni Interview: Ron Popeil

Perpetual infomercial star Ron Popeil ’54 recalls his days on the UI campus as “the cat’s meow.” (Image by Jeffrey Fiterman)
The Ronco founder on the Pocket Fisherman that swam away and his latest device, which fries watermelon and avocados as magnificently as it does a whole turkey. But wait! There’s more!

Before I undertake creating the product, the marketing must be there. That’s the problem with many inventors. They just accidentally come across something. But how many inventors do you know who market their own inventions? That’s what separates me from all the other inventors.

I came up with the idea for the Showtime Rotisserie at Costco. I was in a long line of people waiting to buy a rotisserie chicken. I looked at the customers’ eyes as they watched the chickens turning around on a spit. How mesmerized they were.

In my late teens, I negotiated a concession at the little end of the counter at Woolworth’s No. 1 store in Chicago. I would sell products from my father’s company, and I would give the store a percentage of the money I would take in. Upstairs, the manager had a one-way mirror in his office, and he would point me out to people—celebrities from Hollywood who came in from L.A. to visit, and others.  He would tell them, “See that kid down there? He makes more money than me.”

My father was the inventor of the Veg-O-Matic and the Pocket Fisherman. He was not a fisherman, which was kind of fascinating. He went to trout farms to test the product, and it was truly shooting fish in a barrel. I had a custom boat built, called The Pocket Fisherman, that I kept in Alaska. I went out on it, and using the Pocket Fisherman I hooked a king salmon—about 18 or 20 pounds. The fish ripped it out of my hands, and if he’s still alive, he’s dragging that Pocket Fisherman.

You’ve got to be passionate when you do these projects.

I lasted six months at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was a great campus—just like you’d dream about and see in pictures in your mind. It was just the cat’s meow, but I wasn’t prepared. I come from a broken family. I had lived with my grandparents. My grandmother was wonderful. My grandfather was just the opposite. I didn’t read a lot and had very poor schooling habits. Making a C was difficult for me.

I met Mel Korey ’56 LAS when we were pledging Alpha Epsilon Pi. I remember an English class we shared—that we took at different times. Mel helped me with a paper. He gave me his paper. I used it in my class. The teacher looked at me and said, “Ron, you said here—‘da da da da da.’ What did you mean?” And of course I didn’t know what it meant, and so I said, ‘Just like it said—‘da da da da da.’ I knew I had gotten caught. He gave me a B-minus on it. Mel Korey got an A. For giving me that paper, I made Mel a partner in my business, and he became a very wealthy man.

I sold my business, Ronco, in 2005, but I’m still inventing and marketing. For the past 12 1/2 years, I worked on the Olive Oil Fryer. Besides frying a 15-pound turkey in 46 minutes, the Olive Oil Fryer will do an 8-pound leg of lamb. It will do almost an 8-pound roast beef, two chickens in 18 minutes, and even fried avocado and fried watermelon. But turkey is the hook. 

I’ve just finished the infomercial. In the opening scene, there are the fried turkey and the machine. The machine is smaller than the turkey. The first thing people say when they see it is, “How did it fit into the machine?” Now you’ve got to watch the rest to know how.

One of my best friends represents the rapper Flavor Flav on some stuff, and Flav had loved the way the product worked. He came running onto my show. Sat down, and he said (it’s kind of cute as only he could say it), “I’m a witness! I’m a witness!”

You’ve got to be passionate when you do these projects. To develop the Olive Oil Fryer, I went through about 30,000 pounds of turkey. How much time did that take? How many bags did you cut open, how many gizzards and livers did you remove? The public doesn’t see that. Most of the turkey went to a fire station down the block, and to homeless people. I have a staff here that’s frankly tired of eating turkey.

Not finishing at the University—I regret it every day. Every day. If I had, I would have been a great deal more successful than I am today. Going back has crossed my mind, but it will never happen because I do what I’m good at, which is creating and marketing products. I truly enjoy it. I would do it for 10 million bucks a year. I’d do it for nothing.