Memorial Day means the start of summer which, as every good Forest Parker knows, means barbecues every day, night and weekend. This year, why not think locally about where you cook your burger – like maybe on custom grill or smoker from Tom Kunkel, co-owner of Urban Pioneer Group Builders, 7503 Madison St.

 Kunkel repurposes old oil drums, trees, flooring and more to make custom-made furniture, grills and smokers. His work has turned up around town — Patrick O’Brien, owner of Scratch Kitchen in Forest Park, recently commissioned Urban Pioneer Builders to make all the tables, chairs, bar and hostess stand for District Kitchen and Tap, his newest venture in Oak Park.

But for the grills and smokers, Kunkel said most of his customers are locals. He said he’s crafted about six grills for families in Forest Park, Oak Park and River Forest and the same number of smokers for residents around town.

“It’s really around repurposing with care and in a unique way,” Kunkel said.

He makes the smokers out of found wood, and lines the inside with stainless steel to form a smoke box, which he said can hold a temperature of 220 degrees for two hours with four logs.

The temperature of the smoker can link to a mobile application on users’ phones so they can keep tabs on the fire within from anywhere in their home.

“It’s super-efficient,” Kunkel said. “This gives me the temperature on my phone on the property, so I can come up and fix it. It’s kind of a little bit of a pain because you got to manually manage the fire, opposed to charcoal or pellets or gas.

“They’re very efficient, but not quite barbecue the way barbecue was intended. This is pretty old school,” Kunkel said. 

They’re also not cheap.

Smokers cost about $2,000 each and take about a week to make. All are built on wheels, so the heavy equipment can be moved from place to place. Kunkel said they can be customized for individual clients, using different types of wood and stains.

Customers can also make them part of their family tree — if a tree in their yard needs to be taken down, Kunkel will saw it up into lumber, kiln-dry the wood and make it into a smoker, so the tree remains in the family.

Grills, meanwhile, cost about $1,000 each, also take about a week to make and are crafted from oil tanks found in old buildings and homes. Kunkel said he partners with friends to cut and weld brackets onto their sides.

“Those tanks are more than available and people would pay to have them removed from sites,” he said. “There’s a shortage of folks who are thinking how to take this old oil tank and make something with it.”

Urban Pioneer Group opened in April 2016. The business consists of the for-profit “Builders” side, which turns reclaimed building materials into furniture, grills and smokers, and the nonprofit “Urban Pioneer Group Society” side, which offers classes in smoking meat, mixology and more. People who want to buy grills or smokers should email


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