By Lisa Readie Mayer
If there was an Oscar for best performance in a grill category, kamados would surely win the prize. The elliptically shaped cookers, modeled after ancient Oriental clay cooking vessels, continue to be the hottest and fastest growing segment in the barbecue industry.
“If sales are any indicator, interest is still extremely high in this category,” according to Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement for Big Green Egg, the category leader. The company, which no longer refers to its cookers as “kamados,” but instead describes them as “outdoor cooking systems,” is coming off a year of double-digit sales increases.
Sales at Primo Ceramic Grills were up 26 percent in 2013, according to founder and president, George Samaras. “We’re very busy,” he says. “People thought I was crazy for moving into a 93,000 sq. ft facility last year. Now, one year later, we’re already thinking about more space.”
The buzz has inspired a proliferation of new entries into the category, something that comes as no surprise to Randy Rummel, president of Caliber Range Corporation, makers of the new ThermaShell Pro kamado grill.
“I get an email about every two weeks from manufacturers in China offering ceramic shells for $200 each,” he says. “That’s all it takes for a company to get into the kamado business today, which means newcomers are often lower-quality knock-offs. But we believe that, after people cook on these grills, they’ll see their shortcomings and upgrade to a longer-lasting, quality product.”
Consumers have their choice of quality kamados from category trailblazers such as Big Green Egg, Primo Ceramic Grills, Kamado Joe, Saffire Grill, and Grill Dome, or even from a handful of newer kamado companies that have brought exciting innovations to the marketplace.
For instance, the ThermaShell Pro from Caliber Range Corporation, a 2013 Vesta Award winner, is a dual-walled, 100-percent stainless-steel, American-made kamado with a patented heat-circulation system and a built-in rotisserie with a rear charcoal basket.
The Broil King Keg from Onward Manufacturing Company looks and functions like a traditional kamado, but is made of insulated, double-walled steel rather than ceramic. This offers distinct advantages, according to Ken Hempen, vice president Sales, U.S. It is lighter-weight, can be toted to tailgate parties with a trailer-hitch adapter, cleans up with dish detergent and a hose, and costs less.
The Black Olive Grill from Sherwood Industries is the first pellet-fueled kamado, combining the ease of use and great flavor of a wood-pellet grill with the heat-retaining benefits of a kamado.
The number of retailers carrying kamados has also greatly expanded in the past few years, contributing to the growth in the category.
“It’s hard to walk into a place that sells barbecues today without seeing some version of a kamado on the floor,” notes Hempen. But kamado fever is extending well beyond traditional hearth, patio and grill retailers. The cookers are now commonly sold through appliance dealers, hardware stores, lawn and garden centers, pool and spa dealers, sporting goods retailers, outdoor-enthusiast stores, and even meat markets.
In the past few years, Big Box stores, and regional and national chains also have begun to sell the cookers, offering imported kamados priced considerably less than the brands offered at specialty retailers. Home Depot and Costco carry the Vision Grill, a ceramic kamado priced between $599 and $699. Lowe’s, Kroeger, and other mass and online outlets offer the Char-Griller Kamado Kooker, a double-walled-steel kamado priced around $299.
Opinions on the potential threat from this mainstream infiltration are mixed. Some worry that kamado novices who purchase these types of units first will have a bad experience and sour on the category. Others believe, when it comes to competition, the more the merrier; they believe the growing number of manufacturers and retailers only validates the category and helps to increase consumer awareness.
“Competition brings attention to the category,” says Burson. “People are inspired to go online to learn more about it. When they do the research for themselves they will find the best option for their needs.”
Samaras, who recently introduced a lower price-point, traditionally-shaped kamado to Primo’s line-up of signature oval-shaped cookers, maintains he’s not concerned about cut-rate imports.
“The guy buying an inexpensive kamado at a grocery store is not our customer,” he says. “People might buy a Ford for their first car, but they would really like a Mercedes. When they are ready to upgrade, they will turn to a higher-quality product like ours. In the meantime, I think all the competition is helping to increase awareness.”
“The person who buys a kamado just to say he has one will spend $299 and probably not have a good experience,” adds Hempen. “But someone who researches manufacturer websites and kamado forums will know what to buy. Branding is very important to this type of product. Most people won’t invest if they don’t recognize the brand as a company they can trust.”
Jack Hobbs of the RJay Group is hoping his new Remington Big Shot Ceramic Grill will strike a chord with sportsmen who recognize the Remington firearms brand. The licensed Remington kamado, introduced last year at Expo, is manufactured in Asia, assembled in Kentucky, and features upgrades such as stainless-steel hinges, bands and cart bases, and shotgun-shell details on the handle and damper top.
Bobby Brennan, president of Kamado Joe, believes the concern over competition may be much ado about nothing.
“I think kamados are gaining a little traction at Big Box stores, but maybe not as much as everyone feared,” he says. “The good news for specialty dealers is that the category still needs an educated salesperson to explain it and sell it to customers. But the ongoing challenge will be, how do you sell a product against something consumers can buy at mass merchants for at least a couple hundred dollars less?”
Brennan’s solution is to add value to his Kamado Joe line. He says some of the category’s most popular and practical accessories now come standard on his cookers, helping to justify the price differential versus imports, and keeping his all-in price less than other premium brands.
For instance, in 2014 Kamado Joe grills will come standard with a heat deflector plate for indirect grilling and smoking, a flexible cooking rack system, and other features that were previously optional accessories. “We will include everything you need to smoke and grill right in the box,” says Brennan.
Brennan does not plan to give everything away, however; Kamado Joe will introduce 43 new accessory SKUs this year. Like most kamado manufacturers, the company is keenly aware of the importance of accessory products in bringing customers back to the dealer to buy more.
“Accessories are becoming as important as the cooker to dealers and consumers,” says Burson. “As people are spending more money on their Outdoor Rooms, they want to be able to use it more often and cook a greater variety of foods. It amazes me that people talk as much about making pizza, smoking foods, or Dutch-oven cooking on their EGG as they talk about traditional, direct-heat grilling. Accessories help them accomplish these techniques without additional grills or appliances.”
According to Hempen, accessories are an impulse-driven profit center, and retailers who display and promote them reap significant returns. “Accessories are a huge reason behind the category’s growth,” he says.
The newest accessories – kamado islands and table-surrounds – are hot today and offer another big-ticket sales opportunity for dealers. Big Green Egg’s collection of islands and tables launched last year are doing “extremely well,” according to Burson. The cabinets appeal to those who prefer a built-in-grill set-up, and are also a practical solution for storing the myriad accessories that complement a kamado-style cooker.
Consumer interest in the kamado category has propelled growth in smokers as well, and even in charcoal and wood fuels. According to Kevin Kolman of Weber, the company’s research shows nearly half of all grillers would like to learn how to use a smoker. It also shows smoker owners are among the most prolific outdoor chefs, with 44 percent using it at least once a week for 7.5 hours a week.
With this in mind, the company recently updated its line of Smoky Mountain Cookers, released a book on smoke cooking, and introduced a new mini, 14-1/2-in. smoker this year for those who want to try the technique or tote a smoker on hunting or camping trips.
Don Crace of Cowboy Charcoal Company says interest in kamados, combined with exposure on television food channels, has boosted smoke-cooking and bumped up sales of lump charcoal and wood chips.
So what’s to come?
Samaras points to the power of social media in driving future growth in the smoker and kamado category. “Social media will play an even bigger role in the marketing mix,” he predicts. “It’s a big investment, so consumers do their research online before buying.”
Hempen agrees. He says the Broil King Keg’s extensive online video library of how-to instructions for everything from controlling the damper to installing the trailer-hitch accessory to cooking all kinds of foods, not only helps with purchase decisions, but ensures customer satisfaction after the sale.
Despite its tremendous success, most agree the category has barely scratched its potential. “I would argue that 90 percent of Americans still haven’t heard of a kamado grill,” says Brennan.
And, according to Burson, there are no signs of a slow-down on the horizon. “We still see a lot of room for growth, and we are preparing for that,” she says.
The Black Olive’s patented design and shape gives it the ability to quickly achieve a wide range of temperatures. This makes the grill perfect for smoking, baking, roasting, grilling and searing. The 19 in. cooking surface allows the barbecue chef plenty of room to cook a variety of favorite foods. The hopper fits up to 11 lbs.
From Black Olive Grill; visit www.blackolivegrill.com.
The popular Big Green Egg is a complete outdoor cooking system with many accessories. Grill and sear steaks, pork chops or burgers on the Egg. The grill has high temperature steak house grilling and chefs can use two dampers for accurate control. The oven uses indirect cooking with a plate setter to bake bread, pizza, pies and more.
From Big Green Egg; visit www.biggreenegg.com.
Innovative Charcoal Grill
The Broil King Keg charcoal grill offers a durable body made of double-walled steel with high-grade insulation in between. The design keeps heat in, creating a very efficient, thermal convection style oven while delivering great cooking performance. Features are a 480 sq. in cooking surface, heavy-duty, cast-iron cooking grid, removable side shelves with integrated tool hooks and rust resistant porcelain-coated cooking chamber.
From Onward Manufacturing; visit www.broilkingbbq.com.
Hard Working Grill
The Therma-Shell Pro Charcoal Grill is loaded with features including a flue vent-way system, hardwood or stainless-steel handle, accurate controls for smoking, roasting or searing and an integrated rotisserie system with rear blaze basket option. Other options include a wood or anthracite gray, powder-coated cart. Grilling grates are thick, solid stainless steel. The grill also comes in a variety of porcelain-coated colors.
From Caliber Range; visit www.caliberappliances.com.
Great Grill Features
Grill Dome comes in three sizes and five vibrant colors with a sleek, smooth finish. The grill has features such as the Featherlite Hinge that can be lifted with just two fingers and the Three Tier Rack system that maximizes utility of space in the grill. Grill Dome offers a lifetime warranty on its ceramics, a warranty on hardware against rusting, and a five-year warranty on gaskets.
From Grill Dome; visit www.grilldome.com.
The Kamado All-In-One is a traditional 18 ½ in. round, Kamado-style ceramic grill featuring an ergonomic handle, cradle with two locking casters, food-safe side tables, ash tool and a handy grate lifter. With 280 sq. in. of standard cooking surface, the grill also offers a cast-iron chimney cap, easy-to-read thermometer, reversible cooking grates and stainless-steel lower vent door.
From Primo Grills; visit www.primogrill.com.
Big Shot Grilling
The Big Shot Grill and Smoker is a state-of-the-art ceramic cooker that heats quickly and evenly to prevent cold or burnt spots. The grill has a shotgun shell handle, shell-shaped vented top and Big Shot logo thermometer. Other features are a stainless-steel cooking grid, damper and vent controls, and anti-tip cart.
From Rjay Group; visit www.rjaygroup.com.
The Silver Series XL includes a large volume cooking area and rust-resistant, stainless-steel hardware. The heavy ceramic lid is easily lifted with a Featherlite hinge. Triple baked enamel finish prevents crazing and comes in a variety of unique colors.
From Saffire Grill and Smoker; visit www.saffiregrills.com.