Praise the Lord & Pass the Pellets
By Lisa Readie Mayer
A lot of hard work, a great team of employees, and the power of prayer. That’s how Jeff Thiessen attributes the success of his family’s grill manufacturing company, Dansons Inc.
“We are very blessed,” he says. “We are a Christian company, and our family’s goal is to ethically and morally deliver the best products possible. Prayer got us to where we are today.”
“Where” is its position as a leading supplier of pellet grills, and more recently kamado grills. According to Thiessen, Dansons Inc. offers more SKUs than any other pellet grill company, and has been experiencing “staggering annual growth,” doubling in size each of the last two years. “We expect to do the same next year,” he says.
The Canadian-based company took root in the early 1990s when Thiessen’s father, Dan Thiessen, a mason with a fireplace construction business, began recycling sawmill waste into pellet fuel. By 1999, Dansons Inc. was founded as a manufacturer of pellet stoves. Several years later, it launched the pellet grills it is best known for, and today, the company also has a separate division that markets pine shavings for horse bedding, and another for industrial-grade oils, lubricants and greases.
|Pit Boss – PB820 Wood Pellet Grill.|
Headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Dansons also maintains two warehouse and distribution centers in the U.S., one in Ramsey, Minnesota, and a just-opened facility outside of Tacoma, Washington. Dan Thiessen, age 65, is CEO and spearheads product development. Son Jeff, age 40, is the company’s president, overseeing sales; another son, Jordan, age 33, is vice president in charge of operations.
“We complement each other well,” Jeff Thiessen says. Although he won’t reveal the exact number of employees, he says the mix of seasoned industry professionals and young innovative thinkers has been integral to the company’s success.
About three years ago, the family made the decision to sell off its pellet stove division to Hearth & Home Technologies to focus more on barbecues. “There was too much volatility in the stove business; too many ups and downs,” says Jeff Thiessen. “When there was an off season, it would be crushing.” Although the decision was not easily made, Thiessen calls it a “blessing in disguise.”
“The timing would not have been right 10 years ago to just do pellet barbecues, but now the category is exploding,” he says. “There has been tremendous growth in the past few years. The timing has been excellent.”
Dansons offers two brands of pellet grills. Its Louisiana Grills brand is sold exclusively in specialty stores, and available in three lines: Country Smokers — traditional, horizontal, black smokers ranging in size from 300 sq. in. to 2,400 sq. in.; Colonial Grills — black and stainless-steel units resembling gas grills in design; and the Estate Series – premium, stainless-steel units for outdoor kitchens.
|Louisiana Grills – LG900 Wood Pellet Grill, complete with Smoke Cabinet and Deluxe Front Shelf.|
The company’s value-priced brand, Pit Boss, is available primarily at mass retailers, although specialty dealers may carry it if they wish. Retail prices range from $399 to $4,500 across the two brands, but according to Thiessen, $799 is currently the most popular price point for Louisiana Grills, and $599 is the sweet spot on the Pit Boss brand.
“The key differential we drive home on our grills is that we are bigger, heavier and hotter than our competitors,” says Thiessen. Dansons delivers on that promise through some unique features, including its proprietary “Flame Broiler,” a heat deflector plate that slides back to enable high-heat, direct-grilling over the pellet fire. In addition, its programmable meat probe feature automatically drops the grill temperature to a low smoke level once the desired internal temperature of the food is reached.
“We can offer a huge range of cooking temperatures, from smoking to searing,” says Thiessen. “We try to give the consumer excellent quality and innovation for the money. We strive to be the leader in value.”
Two years ago, Dansons introduced charcoal-fueled kamado grills to its line-up under both the Louisiana Grills and Pit Boss brands. Thiessen says the entry into ceramic cookers was a result of requests from its pellet grill retail customers. The addition also made sense, according to Thiessen, because the category complements the company’s concentration on solid-fuel grills.
“We have strong relationships with our retail partners,” says Thiessen. “We listened to them and responded to a need. Offering both types of grills gives retailers one dependable supplier. We are blessed with a strong supply chain which allows us to open up markets.”
|Pit Boss – PBK24 Ceramic Charcoal Barbecue.|
Adding kamados has proven to be a game-changer for Dansons. “It has had a profound impact on our business and has been responsible for huge growth,” says Thiessen. “What a blessing it’s been for us.”
According to Thiessen, a natural maturation of the pellet and kamado grill market has contributed to a greater awareness of the two product categories among both consumers and prospective dealers. In addition, Thiessen credits television cooking shows for educating consumers about barbecuing over charcoal and pellet fuels.
“People see that competition teams are winning on wood, charcoal and pellets, and now understand that the flavor is not replicable on gas,” he says. “They are discovering that pellet grills, especially, offer the convenience of gas and the flavor of wood. They light with the press of a button, take the guesswork out of cooking, and produce consistent results.”
He says this growing awareness has opened opportunities for the company at major Big Box retailers. “Five years ago, this type of retailer wouldn’t have looked at a pellet or kamado grill, but now the time is right,” he says.
By having distinct and exclusive brands for each channel, and offering MAP pricing and other protections for specialty dealers, Dansons is one of the few grill manufacturers to successfully straddle both the mass and specialty worlds.
“This has worked really well and given us the opportunity to play in both markets without alienating the specialty dealers who are so important to us,” says Thiessen.
Dansons is also growing sales by expanding beyond its borders into other countries. Although Thiessen says U.S. sales, “drive our business,” the company is opening new markets for both its pellet and kamado grills in Europe, Korea, Japan, Australia and other countries. He says 15 to 20 percent of the company’s overall sales are in Canada, and despite the economic instability in their native country, Dansons’ sales have been increasing there.
The company is focused on expanding its product horizons, too. Dan Thiessen is the leader of a prolific product development team, which, according to Jeff Thiessen, currently has at least six new pellet and kamado grills in the works. It also plans to introduce its own branded line of all-natural hardwood lump charcoal, and grow the number of its cooking wood pellet co-packers (other manufacturers who make them under Dansons’ brand names) from three to four or five in the coming year.
Dansons has invested heavily in marketing and retail support resources, building a library of recipes, photos and other educational content on its website, creating YouTube instructional videos, and more. “We know that consumer research begins on the Internet today,” says Thiessen. “We’re prepared for that.
“This is a super exciting time for our business,” he says. “We are just scratching the surface of the potential in these grill categories. Pellet and kamado grills are still just a small percentage of overall grill sales. Who knows where it will lead? God willing, there are a lot of years of growth yet to come.”
|Louisiana Grills – Whole Hog Wood Pellet Grill, complete with stainless-steel front shelves.|