By Lisa Readie Mayer
“It’s the smell that gets them first,” says Jason Baker, director of Business Development for Green Mountain Grills. “People love the smell of wood burning and that’s what attracts attention. But, it’s the smoke flavor that drives the ongoing passion for cooking with pellets.”
Cooking with wood is certainly a white-hot culinary trend today, and pellet grills just might be at the epicenter. According to Brian Oleksa, vice president of Marketing at Traeger, the company that originated pellet grills more than 30 years ago, both the brand and the overall category are seeing “substantial double-digit growth, albeit from a very low base.” He says the most recent barbecue study from market research firm Mintel, estimates wood pellet grills at just 2% of the total grill market, but indication of intent-to-purchase is up more than 400%.
|Pit Boss Vertical Pellet Smoker from Pit Boss Grills.|
“We think the category is disrupting the overall space and feel confident that any discussion of the two mainstream fuel sources – gas and charcoal – will soon include a discussion of wood pellets, as well,” Oleksa says.
Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons, Inc., makers of Louisiana Grills, says the company is experiencing “explosive growth” in pellet grills. “Smoking is such a buzzword, right now,” he says. “Pellet grills infuse food with great wood flavor, but you don’t have to babysit it or be an expert to get competition-quality food. It’s so convenient; you just push the button and it works.”
“We’ve had a very strong year with double-digit growth that beat our projections,” says Sharla Wagy, general manager of Memphis Wood Fire Grills. “And, by all indications, we’re looking at a very strong 2017.” Baker agrees. He says Green Mountain Grills has seen double-digit annual sales increases for the past few years. “Retailers are having fun selling the category and we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm among dealers and consumers.”
Fueling the Passion
Retailers in need of more evidence regarding the viability of the category, need look no further than social media. Brooks Hansen, public relations manager for Camp Chef, says the company’s Facebook fans increased by 79% in 2016, and collective views of its recipe and how-to videos topped 2.3 million. Just two or three years ago, Baker says, Green Mountain Grills would be lucky to get “a few hundred hits” on recipe and instructional videos posted on its website and YouTube channels. “Now, we regularly get tens of thousands, or even 100,000 views,” he says. A recipe video demonstrating how to smoke salmon on a Green Mountain Grill has racked up over 1.1 million views.
Traeger currently has over 550,000 subscribers for its weekly recipe emails, and 108,000 Instagram followers. Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Louisiana Grills, and other manufacturers also are generating top-quality recipes, photography, videos, and other educational content for their growing rosters of social media followers.
|Estate Series 860C by Louisiana Grills.|
“This kind of content drives consumers to dealers,” says Hansen.
Wagy credits “high-profile grillers” like Steven Raichlen, celebrity pitmasters, and other TV chefs, for boosting awareness of pellet grilling through exposure on television, in magazines, cookbooks, blogs, grilling forums, and the competition circuit. “Word-of-mouth is big,” she says. “People are doing a lot of research online before buying, and these accolades help. Excitement is really growing.”
Wagy says grilling with wood also ties into today’s “real food” movement. “People are looking to eat more unprocessed, natural and organic foods,” she says. “Pellets are a natural fuel and a great way to add natural flavor to food. I think that’s part of the reason behind the growth in wood-fired cooking.”
“There’s no denying that the overall trend in ‘all-things-food’ has had an impact,” adds Oleksa. “Consumers expect a more elevated culinary experience, whether they’re dining out or staying home to entertain friends and family.” He says pellet grills dovetail perfectly with these greater macro-trends.
Low-Tech Meets High-Tech
It would seem, however, that fully automated, push-button-controlled, and often Wi-Fi-enabled, pellet grills are contrary to what some claim is the best part of cooking with wood – the back-to-basics, hands-on building, lighting and taming of the fire. While that may be true for what Hansen calls “a diehard group,” the simplicity and attainability of the pellet grilling has expanded wood-fired cooking to a much broader audience, including women, seniors and Millennials.
“Not everyone has the time or is cut out to deal with the fire,” Hansen says. “It can be intimidating. With a pellet grill, you light it, put the food on, go do something else, and come back and have a flavorful meal.”
“This kind of ease and convenience is very appealing to people with busy lives,” says Rick Price, national sales manager for Memphis Wood Fire Grills. “Families can use a pellet grill on a nightly basis. Lighting and tending the fire is a romantic idea, but fire pits can provide that experience.”
|Senator from Boneless Grills.|
Pellet grills’ automated systems help users attain those consistent results, and the high-tech components are helping attract a younger audience, according to Baker. “We are selling a tremendous amount of grills in Silicon Valley in the (San Francisco) Bay area, and around Austin, Texas. Both are big computer areas where people adopt technology easily and early,” he says. “We’re seeing it also catch on with tech-savvy young people outside New York City.”
Memphis Wood Fire Grills have Wi-Fi monitoring capability through an App (available currently for iOS, and soon in an Android version) that controls the grill, tracks the internal temperature of up to three different meats, and texts when it’s done. The latest version has a feature that enables users to share recipes with other Memphis Wood Fire Grills owners to build a community around the grills. “The technology goes beyond what I’ve got in my indoor kitchen,” Wagy says with a laugh.
Traeger’s new Timberline Grill, which Oleksa calls the most advanced grill in the company’s 30-year history, features a WiFIRE controller to change temperatures, boost smoke levels, program a cooking profile, set a timer, and reference graphic visuals to determine doneness via an App.
Thiessen says innovative features like these are helping pellet grills get a foot in the door in Europe, where consumers are already familiar with pellet heating stoves. “We are growing in Switzerland, Germany, France, and believe it or not, Estonia,” he says.
Headquartered in Barcelona, Spain, and named for the way low-and-slow barbecued meat falls off the bone, Boneless Grills is embarking on the reverse path, and hoping to build a dealer and consumer base for its pellet grills in the U.S, according to sales manager Pere Renau. The high-end grill is made of hand-welded, marine-grade stainless steel and features touchpad or App controls to manage and monitor the grill temperature, smoke levels, and food temperatures.
A Growing Field
With nearly 40 brands of pellet grills available today, manufacturers are adding other innovative features to try to differentiate and distinguish their products in an increasingly competitive field.
|The SmokePro BBQ Sear Box by Camp Chef.|
Camp Chef introduced an optional high-heat Sear Box that attaches like a side burner and reaches high temperatures for direct-grilling and reverse-searing techniques. “You start cooking the meat in the indirect, convection heat of the pellet grill, where it gets infused with smoke flavor,” he says. “Then you finish it off on the Sear Box to create that crusty exterior. It’s so popular it’s hard to keep it in stock.”
With its Direct Flame Insert in place, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, too, is capable of direct-grilling, reaching searing temperatures up to 700 degrees, according to Wagy. She also notes that with retail prices ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, Memphis Wood Fire Grills is positioned at the high end of the category. “We are serving the outdoor kitchen market and targeting people looking for high quality, high performance and good design,” she says.
With more women interested in pellet grilling, product design and esthetics are increasingly important, according to Thiessen. As such, the company is relaunching its top-of-the-line, stainless steel, Estate Series grills this year. “There is a big demand for high-end pellet grills that look good on the patio,” he says. This year, the company will also introduce a line of vertical pellet smokers with multi-tiered cooking grates, offering greater capacity than traditional models.
New pellet grill incarnations, such as the pellet-fired Black Olive Grill kamado cooker, are now available. And, even manufacturers of gas grills and multi-fuel hybrid grills are finding ways to tap into the trend by using pellets as a primary or secondary fuel source on their grills. The American Muscle Grill by Summerset has the option of burning wood pellets (as well as wood chunks and charcoal) in its unique Multi-fuel Tray System that sits over the gas burner. The pellets can be lit by the burner and used to fuel the grill, or used in conjunction with the gas burner to add more subtle wood-smoke flavor.
|Smoker Pellet Grill Insert with premium wood pellets from Kalamazoo Gourmet.|
Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet has just introduced Smoker Pellet Grill Inserts, heavy-duty, stainless-steel mesh liners to hold wood pellets in the fuel drawers of its Hybrid Fire Grills. When used together, the ignition burner and smoldering pellets generate low heat (225 to 275 degrees) for smoking and low-and-slow barbecuing. Or, with all burners off, the smoke from the smoldering pellets can be used for cold-smoking cheese, nuts, salt, fish, and other foods. “We’re constantly trying to elevate the outdoor cooking experience,” says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. “We saw this as an opportunity to make smoking in our grill even more effective and easy for our clients.”
Companies are also adding accessory products to expand cooking versatility and grow sales after the initial grill purchase. Case in point: Green Mountain Grills’ new mini pizza oven that sits on top of the pellet grill’s cooking grid. “Dealers love these accessories because they bring customers back into stores,” says Baker.
Challenges and Opportunities
Not all retailers are jumping on the pellet train, however. According to Bruce Bjorkman, director of Sales and Marketing for MAK Grills, dealer resistance is one reason the company has decided to eliminate its brick-and-mortar dealers as of May 1 and follow the lead of other pellet grill manufacturers, including REC TEC Grills and Grilla Grills, and sell directly to consumers. “We’ve come to the conclusion that we can more effectively sustain our business selling this way,” he says.
Despite enjoying “well over 20% growth” and the best year in the company’s six-year history in 2016, according to Bjorkman, “it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get retailers to buy into the concept.
“What was once thought of as a fad, is now a solid, bonafide, growing category,” he says. “On our first day of business in January this year, we fielded four calls from consumers who wanted to buy one of our grills, but couldn’t find a local dealer in their area. I had six emails from consumers this morning alone. We experience this on a daily basis. Retailers need to be taking this category seriously. Some are – they’re kickin’ ass and taking names – but, for some reason, many dealers are unwilling to try pellet grills.”
He calls the company’s decision “bittersweet,” but says, “As the retail business climate continues to change, we have to be flexible and adapt to meet the changing demands and needs of the marketplace.”
According to Price, the secret to getting retailers onboard with pellet grilling is to get them to become avid pellet grillers themselves. “It is the common thread among our most successful dealers,” he says. “When they cook on the product and are excited and enthusiastic about it, it really makes a difference. The dealers who buy into the concept see the most success.”
|Jim Bowie pellet grill by Green Mountain Grills.|
To help with that effort, Memphis Wood Fire Grills has developed a “Guru Program,” offering discounted or even free grills to salespeople. “The more experienced they are, the more excited they get about sharing stories, recipes and food photos with customers. The more excited they get, the more they sell,” says Wagy. “We are very committed to the specialty dealer channel. This program helps us to build relationships with our dealers, and in turn, helps them build relationships with their customers.”
Oleksa says weekend demos with food samples are still the most effective way to sell grills. “Demos let people see first-hand that wood-pellet grills make food taste better,” he says. “With such a differentiated product, we know that we win when people can ‘taste the difference.’
“Anyone can see there’s an overall trend happening in outdoor cooking – more than 45% of grill owners own two or more grills,” he adds. “Pellet grills should be part of that mix. They offer a unique opportunity for the retailer to sell a second grill, and the fuel and accessories, as well.”
Baker says, percentage-wise, sales of pellet fuel are outpacing sales of pellet grills – something that bodes well for the ongoing success of the category. “It’s an indicator that people are using their grills frequently,” he says.
And, many believe, it is an indicator that the category will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.