BARBECUE: A Generally Good Year
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Thanks to a robust stock market, lower unemployment rates, housing gains, and other economic improvements, U.S. consumer confidence is reported to be at its highest level since December 2000. These factors helped create an environment where consumers were ready and willing to spend on grills and other backyard improvements this year, according to many of the barbecue retailers who weighed in for Hearth & Home’s annual Retail Report. Most barbecue retailers reported at least nominal gains, while some even experienced a huge surge in sales.
Retailers say pellet grills are hot and trending, fulfilling the findings of HPBA’s 2017 State of the Barbecue Industry consumer study indicating 11% of consumers planned to purchase a pellet grill this year. Some retailers have reported a slow-down in kamado sales, a result of what they perceive as oversaturation in the marketplace. Outdoor kitchen business remains fairly steady.
A number of retailers spoke of a “second season,” with grill and accessory sales spiking in the final quarter of the year for holiday meal prep and gift-giving. This trend also is supported by HPBA’s study that finds grilling is increasingly a year-round passion, with a growing number of consumers cooking outdoors for “off-season” holidays such as Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.
All was not entirely rosy in 2017. Retailers faced challenges as well. Chief among them, and almost universally reported, is the negative impact of Internet competition. Retailers also bemoaned the growing trend of price-matching requests by consumers, and the lack of MAP enforcement by manufacturers.
Notably, however, the ability to succeed in spite of these challenges was often in direct correlation to the amount of time and effort retailers invested in creating food-related educational content; in-store experiences such as cooking classes and events; and promotions such as “grill test drives” and charity tie-ins. Also helpful was developing a roster of value-added services such as grill-cleaning and repairs, that can’t be found online.
Diane Rymdeika Brunner
Grates & Grills
The weather was responsible for a rollercoaster-like barbecue sales year at this Pennsylvania hearth and barbecue shop, run by the Rymdeika family since 1975. The season started slowly due to a cool and rainy spring, then rallied for a “great” May and early June, before unexpectedly dying off again later that month, according to Diane Rymdeika Brunner. But warm and sunny weather extending into fall generated brisk sales in September, and helped October become the store’s best “off-season” month ever for grill sales.
Although most customers still opt for gas grills, Big Green Egg sales are growing at Grates & Grills. “People are going back to charcoal, because you can’t beat the taste, but it’s more of a weekend type of experience for our customers,” Brunner explains. “They want gas during the week and charcoal for weekends, so they’re buying one of each.” She says small, two- and three-burner gas grills have been trending this year, attributed, in part, to a new 55-and-up housing development just constructed nearby. “People are moving into smaller spaces, so they are downsizing,” she says.
The store’s outdoor kitchen business grew this year, with a “huge influx” of customers inquiring about projects. Brunner says most outdoor kitchen customers incorporate a 36-in. gas grill and “one or two other elements.” The store offers prefab outdoor kitchen options, however, “99% of customers want custom masonry islands,” she says.
Although the store is “not computerized, and everything is done by hand,” Brunner says they ventured into selling some fireplace accessories online this year. “This is a work in progress and we are still testing before selling anything grill-related online,” she says. “The shipping is so expensive, we’re not sure it’s worth it. But everybody is shopping online today; it’s the way of the future.”
Getting customers into the store is another challenge, according to Brunner. The business pays for key-word optimization, so it comes up on Google searches, but otherwise she does minimal advertising due to the cost. “It’s retail,” she says with a laugh. “Every day is challenging.”
Grillers Hall of Flame
Indian Orchard, Massachusetts
With the amount of cool, rainy weather Mother Nature dished out this year, Gary Bertassi says he might have been better off selling rain barrels instead of grills, but under the circumstances, he describes the year as “good, not great.” Gas grill sales were down slightly overall, with models priced around $1,000 performing best. Sales of models over $2,000 were flat.
National consumer advertising, and beneficial dealer promotions by Napoleon and Saber, drew customers into the store and helped those brands perform solidly this year. Pellet grills, particularly models from Green Mountain Grills, were another bright spot. Bertassi is at a loss to explain the reason, but was pleasantly surprised by strong sales of Weber’s pricey new Summit Charcoal Grill.
Bertassi put more emphasis behind promoting his grill cleaning, restoring and repair services this year, and it’s paid off. “It’s like being a chimney sweep without the ladder,” he says. “It’s a messy, greasy job, and you get dirty, but you get paid very well for your efforts. The business is very profitable and the demand is big. It’s my niche and it’s working as a way to differentiate and compete. We are grill mechanics, not just salespeople new to the business like in Big Box stores. People can’t get this service at Costco or on the Internet.”
On the flip side, Bertassi says, “Outdoor kitchens and kamados were flat – and I mean flat. Kamado sales were pathetic.” He believes the kamado market is “glutted with too many options for consumers,” and says his sales have been hurt by kamado deals at warehouse-clubs. “That’s a big problem for specialty retailers,” he says. Another challenge is shrinking margins.
“Margins continue to fall because the industry seems intent on dictating fake MAP pricing,” he says. “Why is there MAP pricing and MSRP pricing? Stop it. Set a retail price and let us go from there. We don’t want to hear that you’re doing it to protect us from Internet resellers. Just what are you protecting if you’re making it difficult for specialty retailers to make a fair profit? Pure nonsense.”
Bertassi demos every Saturday and uses social media to market his business, but says, after 34 years, his store’s reputation, product selection, exemplary service, and commitment to customer satisfaction – even going so far as texting customers while in the hospital for an unplanned surgery this year – are responsible for repeat sales, referrals and success. “We are known as the experts and the customer is buying that knowledge. The customer is king, and we put them all on pedestals.”
The Grill Center
Located just outside Annapolis, Maryland, this 2,000 sq. ft. grill store shares a building with its sister business, Chesapeake Spas, offering customers one-stop-shopping for outdoor living products. Business was up overall this year, according to manager Brock Arter. He saw 10% growth in Weber grill sales after the launch of the company’s new Genesis II line, and says Napoleon grill sales “shot up” thanks to the brands’ television advertising driving customers into stores. Arter noticed more customers springing for larger-sized grills, and opting for natural-gas models.
The store added Yoder pellet grills a year ago, and Arter says, “The line is going crazy. We can’t keep them in stock. We get at least one or two calls a day from Yoder’s dealer-locator page, and people are driving 100 miles to our store from surrounding states to buy them. Pellets are becoming a really big thing. Customers love that they’re push-button easy.”
Another bright spot has been Summerset’s multi-fuel American Muscle Grill, new to the store’s line-up this year. “One customer bought two the other day,” he says. In the accessory department, smart, wireless thermometers and temperature-and-smoke-control accessories are selling well, as are Napoleon Charcoal Trays and GrillGrates grid toppers. One notable exception to the growth is the kamado category. “Our Egg sales were pretty flat,” he says. “There are now three or four other dealers within two miles of us, and it has hurt.”
Though sales of freestanding, cart-based grills outnumber built-ins, the store promotes the Outdoor Room category with a sizable island-kitchen display in its outdoor showroom. Arter says they mostly supply grills and other built-in components to landscaper-partners’ projects, but he is beginning to see traction slowly build for the modular outdoor kitchens they carry from Napoleon and Saber.
The store’s 5th annual “Eggs by the Chesapeake” Big Green Egg event, held in its outdoor showroom, was the “best year yet,” according to Arter, attracting nearly 150 people, most of whom ended up in the store to shop for accessories, sauces and rubs. The business is testing out cooking classes, and plans a live, in-store, radio-broadcast event as a lead-in to the holiday season, a period that typically generates a “big burst” in grill sales at the store. “The goal of these events is to get people into the store,” Arter says. “Once we get them in, they’re hooked.”
Dean Salvani, Sr. and Dean Salvani, Jr.
Farmingdale, Long Island, New York
Incorporating an interactive, 3D, software program for designing pools and Outdoor Rooms has proven to be a game-changer for this business about 40 miles outside New York City. The program creates extremely lifelike 3D renderings of outdoor spaces featuring pools, patios, pergolas, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, and furniture, down to the exact color blend of paving stones and the fabric pattern on the cushions.
The detailed plans – with elements that easily and instantly can be moved about to visualize different configurations – help customers better envision a complete renovation of their backyard, according to Dean Salvani, Jr, whose family has owned the business for 42 years.
“It has revolutionized the design process, saves time, and has helped us close more sales and sell more elements per backyard project,” he says.
Since the software allows the company to plug the customer’s address into Google Earth to get images of the property, staff can start the design process on the customer’s first visit to the store, even if they’re just browsing. “We show them everything that’s possible; elements they might not have ever thought of,” he says. “We can get the deposit right in the store.” (Home visits are still a necessity, and follow later.)
Salvani, Jr. and his dad, Dean Salvani, Sr., say being part of a large buying group allows the store to offer competitive pricing, have access to private-label brands, and solicit advice from other partners in the group.
“It’s helped us survive and thrive as a brick-and-mortar retailer,” says Salvani, Sr. Word-of-mouth referrals remain the company’s best source of new business, but the Salvanis insure it with an intensive marketing effort heavy on TV advertising, social media, print ads in high-end local magazines, and direct-mailers to high-income targets. The store also demos around key holiday weekends in summer.
At the 30,000 sq. ft. showroom, half devoted to pools and spas, and the other half to grills, patio furniture and other Outdoor Room elements, cart-based grills are “phasing out” in favor of fully functional, built-in outdoor kitchens. While gas grills reign supreme in the store, particularly those with infrared sear zones, pizza ovens have seen a big increase in sales. Gazebos and pergolas are trending, as are sleek, linear, and modern design aesthetics for outdoor kitchens and patio furniture.
“The furniture business has become a fashion business,” says Salvani, Sr. “And being in the fashion capital of New York, we are ahead of the curve on this trend.”
New Berlin, Watertown,
and Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin
This third-generation, 70-year-old hardware retailer with three locations in Wisconsin, has built its reputation on service, according to the stores’ “grill guy,” Josh Foshey. He says 2017 was a good year overall, thanks to mild weather, and excitement over the comprehensive design changes to Weber grills this year.
“The line change gave us an opportunity to attract customers interested in discounted clearance models, as well as those who want to check out the latest Weber product,” he says. The stores have carried the full Weber line for years, adding Traeger pellet grills five years ago, and Big Green Egg charcoal kamados about two years ago.
Foshey says customer interest in smoking and cooking over solid fuels has increased considerably. “It’s gas during the week, but customers like to use charcoal or pellets on the weekend,” he says. “Smoking is very big in our area.” Foshey says barbecue fuels are a big part of the business, particularly the five varieties of wood pellets they stock.
Blair’s Hardware also does a “huge” business in propane refills; its “Tanks a Lot” rewards program offers a free refill after the purchase of five, and generates repeat customers. Yeti insulated coolers and beverage containers are displayed prominently in the stores, and sales have been growing. “They are expensive, but they have great quality and brand recognition,” he says. “They really move.”
Services such as free assembly, delivery and removal of old grills, give Blair’s Hardware a competitive advantage over online and local brick-and-mortar competitors, according to Foshey. Large-scale marketing efforts such as annual Big Green Egg demo events, and Weber parking-lot events before Father’s Day, help draw customers, but simply smoking on Eggs and Traeger grills in front of the store nearly every weekend has also proven effective.
“I’ll start something at 8 am and let it cook till 1pm, and that smoke smells wonderful,” he says. The retailer offers a number of DIY how-to videos on its website, including one on cleaning and maintaining a grill. Foshey says they hope to create more content to use in social media campaigns next year.
Bassemier’s Fireplace, Patio & Spas
Coming off a soft hearth season, Jeff Bassemier, vice president and Service manager for Bassemier’s Fireplace, Patio & Spas, was not expecting a bang-up year for outdoor living products. He was wrong. “Sales of hot tubs were really strong – up more than 25% – and we’ve seen more growth in grills in the last five years than the 10 years before that. The fall has been warm, too, so that’s been good for extending barbecue sales,” he says. “Whatever we lost in fireplace sales, we more than made up for.”
Bassemier is not sure how to explain the banner year, but says it could partly be a result of a new approach to direct-mail advertising. Instead of distributing mailers within the store’s usual selling area, they targeted upscale demographics 30 miles outside Evansville. “It worked and brought in a lot of new customers,” he says.
He notes built-in grills are selling well, particularly in the homebuilder market, thanks to new construction in the area. Big Green Egg is another bright spot because it “always keeps people coming in,” he says. He says the store has developed a substantial holiday gift business with Eggs and related accessories. Bassemier says passion for Big Green Eggs among the staff and customers is the driving force behind its success in his family’s store. “You gotta sell what you believe in,” he says.
Bassemier also strongly believes in the importance of cooking classes. “You can’t be successful in the outdoor cooking business if you don’t offer cooking classes,” he says. The store’s BBQ Bootcamp classes, held in a room designed to resemble an Army barracks, cover the basics of lighting and cooking a variety of foods on the grill. The class is offered for corporate team-building events, as well.
In addition to classes, the store fires-up grills – sometimes just burning charcoal with wood chips – every Saturday to create smoky aromas and start conversations with customers. Food-tasting demos are held frequently and always feature something “ordinary,” like a store-bought frozen pizza, and something “outrageous,” like a fruit cobbler or shrimp scampi, to demonstrate “it’s the grill that makes the flavor difference,” he says.
Bassemier says the biggest challenge he faces today is increased competition from both online sellers and other brick-and-mortar retailers. “It’s harder than ever,” he says. “Your business must be remarkable and stand out. Consumers are looking to solve a problem. If you can solve their problem and show them they need you, they’ll be your customer.”
This 20,000 sq. ft. store for “people with a passion for food, cooking and entertaining,” anchors one end of a small, urban, shopping plaza. One-third of the ground-floor retail space is devoted to grills and outdoor cooking products; the balance is for indoor cookware and housewares. An upper level holds two state-of-the-art cooking-school classrooms. An outdoor cooking classroom and display patio with 20 working grills is just outside the store.
Owner Doug Huemoeller says business was up this year, but he was reluctant to quantify the increase before holiday sales numbers were tallied. “Our second barbecue season is November and December,” he says. “We do a big business in grilling products for holiday gift-giving.”
Huemoeller says gas grills still represent his largest grill category by volume, however, pellet and kamado sales are growing by the greatest percentage. “Pellet grills, in particular, have increased significantly the last couple years,” he says. “People are highly intrigued and asking more questions about them. There is definitely more interest.”
The store’s 2017 accessory standouts were Cookina Nonstick Grilling Mats and Charcoal Companion’s Hasselback Potato Racks. “We sold an awful lot,” he says. “People like innovative accessories that let them have fun on the grill.”
The outdoor kitchen business has remained “consistent” for the past few years. The store does not offer design-build services, but mainly partners with landscape architects, builders and hardscapers to supply product, and occasionally collaborates with vendors Lynx and Kalamazoo on designs. Huemoeller says customers typically request a built-in gas grill, a pellet or kamado grill, one or two other elements, and some cabinets. “Our season is shorter, so people don’t order expansive outdoor kitchens like they might in warmer climates,” he says.
Kitchen Window holds between 400 and 500 cooking classes a year, including 150 grilling classes. Subjects range from grilling the Thanksgiving dinner, to sausage-making and grilling, to “cooking with the choir,” a class that pairs dishes with musical selections performed by a local choir. The store also hosts about 200 private and corporate events annually.
Huemoeller says Kitchen Window gives free classes with a grill purchase, and offers a “Test Drive” program where customers are invited to the outdoor patio to try out grills they are considering (Kitchen Window even supplies the food). “Our classes and programs are very effective at building relationships with customers,” he says.
Also effective is Huemoeller’s event-based marketing, with three or four major events held at the store annually, including a spring Grill Expo with free clinics and a vendor showcase, and several offsite community events designed to create awareness and drive customers to the store. These marketing efforts complement traditional radio and television advertising; grilling segments on local TV shows broadcast from the store’s patio; and vigorous social media sharing of recipes, tips and other helpful content, created and photographed at the store.
Specialty Gas House
Rob Schenz’s business philosophy – do good for your community and it will help grow your business – explains why he uses his hearth and barbecue retail store as a platform to support causes he is passionate about. He has turned his annual “Ohio Eggfest” into a fundraiser for cancer research, raising $83,000 in three years. His “Buckeye Barbecue Battle” event benefits veterans’ charities, and the proceeds from the $5 Friday lunches he holds in spring and summer go to local causes.
Schenz’s ongoing canned food drive – a sales-closing tactic in which customers are offered a 10% discount in exchange for a donation of 10 canned goods – yielded 10,000 pounds of food for the local food bank last year alone.
Whether because of karma or smart marketing, the strategy is paying off. Sales at Specialty Gas House are up 28% this year, following a year of 17% growth in 2016. “People want to do business with companies that give back to the community,” says Schenz.
Schenz says his grill sales were up across the board, with Memorial Day weekend the high point of the season. “By Tuesday, we had nothing left on the floor,” he says. High-end price points $3,000 and up from Lynx and Fire Magic had the biggest sales gains in the gas grill category. But, he says, sales of $1,000 MHP grills were solid, as well.
He had a “great year” with Big Green Eggs – something else Schenz is passionate about. And, after selling off his inventory of Traeger grills, “because they’re everywhere,” he took on Green Mountain Grills this year. “They have been selling like crazy,” he says. “People are coming in asking for pellet grills.”
Outdoor kitchens represent a “very small part” of Schenz’s business, but they remain steady. He partners with landscape contractors to install gas lines and provide built-in grills, sideburners and doors. He says his biggest challenge has been finding and retaining good help. “We have four trucks on the road now, up from three,” he says. “I would like to have five, but it’s hard to find skilled employees with a good driving record who can pass a drug test.”
Memphis Barbeque Supply
A lot has changed since Jimmy Shotwell opened this Memphis-area barbecue retail store four years ago. The customer base, originally heavy with competition cooks and “barbecue traditionalists,” now tips in favor of what Shotwell calls “Kings of the Cul-de-Sac;” traditionalists went from 80% to 20%. Accordingly, the product mix, once exclusively focused on charcoal- and wood-fired grills and smokers, now includes gas grills and pellet cookers. One thing that’s remained constant, however, is the store’s year-over-year growth. Pleasant weather in spring, a not-too-hot summer, and a mild fall helped boost sales again in 2017.
Shotwell emphasizes locally produced and North-American- made products whenever possible, because he says it’s important to him and his customers. He says the pellet smoker category – he carries Smokin Brothers brand, produced in Missouri – was the hottest trend in the store this year.
Napoleon gas grills, priced between $599 and $2,000, have “really taken off,” and sales of Primo ceramic grills remain strong. “Customers still come in asking for them every day, however, ceramic grill sales have flattened a bit due to the natural maturation of the category,” he says.
The store stocks 250 rubs and sauces, including increasingly requested varieties that are low in sodium, have no MSG, and/or are free of high-fructose corn syrup. The staff is known for being able to suggest sauces and rubs in flavor profiles customers are looking for, and it keeps them coming back regularly. According to Shotwell, “In this category, locally made is really big.”
In accessories, electronic remote thermometers, and fan and temperature control systems, saw significant growth this year. Shotwell says they have begun to “dabble” in outdoor kitchens in response to customer requests. He currently sells Napoleon Oasis modular islands, but is looking to expand into other outdoor kitchen capabilities and offerings.
The store holds at least one barbecue class a month – the latest covered how to deep-fry and smoke turkey for the holidays. Although registration is required and seating is capped, Shotwell does not charge for classes. “This is information people could find on YouTube for free,” he reasons. “Our customers love the classes and it builds relationships with them and gives them confidence to cook more. The classes ultimately lead to sales, too – maybe not the day of, but long-term.”
He says the store’s big online presence – they have nearly 8,000 Facebook followers, and also post on Instagram and Twitter – has proven effective at drawing customers for both brick-and-mortar and online sales. Shotwell views the Internet as “a challenging opportunity.” He says, “It is unfamiliar territory for us and it’s constantly changing and evolving, but it gives us an opportunity to reach a broader customer base.”
BBQ Outfitters – Southlake
The 2017 season was “about the same, maybe a little bit up,” at this store focused on American-made grilling and outdoor kitchen products. The hottest trend this year, according to manager Bret Denison, was pellet grills, with sales “really taking off.” After avoiding the category for years to focus on ceramic kamados, the store began “getting so many customer requests for pellet grills, we had to listen,” he says. They now carry Yoder, Pitts & Spitts, and Memphis brand pellet grills.
“Immediately since becoming a Yoder dealer, we’ve gotten five or six calls a day about it,” he says. “The only problem is, since the brand got so popular, what started as a four-week lead time is now up to 16 weeks. People are frustrated they can’t take one home, but they seem willing to wait.”
According to Denison, the store’s ceramic kamado sales are down 15% this year, due to “a market very saturated with name-brands and knock-offs.” However, he has seen growth in flat-top teppanyaki-style grills, and griddle inserts and accessories. “People like to use them to cook breakfast and fajitas, and sear steaks,” he says.
BBQ Outfitters - Southlake has six outdoor kitchens on display, and built-ins account for nearly 85% of its grill sales. Denison says customers frequently want both gas and ceramic grills built into their outdoor kitchens, as well as dry pantry storage and refrigerators. Sales of gas and electric patio heaters also have been picking up. Although he has seen a slight uptick in sales of Danver modular outdoor kitchens to customers who desire a modern, sleek aesthetic, most customers prefer a more rustic look that incorporates native Texas stone, according to Denison.
The store does not hold structured cooking classes, but attracts customers with demos every weekend that provide instruction, tips, and tasting samples. Denison says their biggest challenge is “dealing with online competition.” He points out that, with free shipping and no taxes, “customers can save $500 or more on a job. We say to them, ‘Who are you going to call if it breaks down,’ but a lot of people are very price conscious.”
Jack Wills, III
Jack Wills Outdoor Living
Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Springdale, Arkansas
The oil downturn struck a blow to the local economy and precipitated a period of transition for Jack Wills Outdoor Living. Over the past couple of years, the business, founded in 1939, closed two of its four stores, and got out of the outdoor kitchen construction business, citing increased competition and a shrinking pool of projects.
“Outdoor kitchen numbers have been soft,” says Jack Wills, III, the company’s third-generation president. Instead, the company is now aligning with landscapers, designers, pool companies, and outdoor kitchen builders – once considered competitors – to provide grills and components for their projects.
According to Wills, while grill sales were down overall in his stores, ceramic kamados took a particularly hard hit. “The kamado market is so saturated; they’re everywhere,” he says. He is hoping two new grill lines added this year – The Good One Smokers, and Sawtooth Pellet Grills – will spark customer interest and ignite sales by “offering something for everyone and having every base covered.” The one silver lining was patio furniture. “It had a good year,” says Wills.
Wills says his stores’ “biggest hurdle and most consistent challenge” is consumers increasingly shopping online and asking him to price-match. Besides cutting into margins, he believes the lost sales-tax revenue is negatively impacting the local community. “Retailers can’t just be ‘mom-and-pop shops’ anymore,” he says. “We have to create an environment that offers customers unique experiences and gives them a reason to come into our stores.”
To that end, Jack Wills Outdoor Living held free, weekly “Saturday with Chefs” demos at the stores from late spring through summer, featuring locally known chefs. The events proved successful at attracting new customers and generating excitement. Wills would like to hold cooking classes, but is hampered by limited parking at his Tulsa store. Although he pioneered an innovative partnership with a nearby Lexus dealer on some previous events – customers could park at the car dealer and be chauffeured to Wills’ store in the luxury vehicles – for most large-scale events and classes the retailer must hire a valet service.
He believes boosting the number of customer home-visits – perhaps even establishing a quota system for his salespeople – will help build relationships and improve close ratios. He also plans to emphasize freestanding cart grills next year. “Hopefully, these things will make a difference next year,” he says. “Retail, in general, is tough.”
Lee’s Barbeque Grill Center
East Boca Raton and West Boca Raton, Florida
Business was up at this two-store establishment, located in South Florida for nearly 30 years. Sales were particularly brisk in September and October as customers stocked up on propane, charcoal and other supplies in the wake of Hurricane Irma. The gains continued late into the year as returning “snowbirds” began to replace grills that were not properly secured during the hurricane and were damaged.
The business does little advertising; most new customers come through organic, word-of-mouth referrals, but maintenance-service “housecalls” also help to generate sales. While performing “functional grill cleanings,” the stores’ technicians assess grills for necessary repairs or parts, and advise customers on whether it makes more sense to repair or replace their grill.
If a customer choses to buy a new grill, the business will credit the price of the service call toward the purchase. An effective sales-closing strategy with customers who are “on the fence,” is to invite them to stop by the store on Saturdays, when the staff is grilling lunch, to see the grills in action and sample the results.
Infrared grills are trending, according to sales associate Brian K., noting that customers like the intense sear and crusty exterior the high heat imparts. Another key segment is charcoal-fueled kamados. He said the business switched from its original kamado vendor to Big Green Egg because customers kept asking for that brand.
“It has the best brand recognition in the category, everyone loves the flavor, and customers rarely complain about the price,” he says. Although kamado sales have “tapered off a bit,” he says the stores “can’t keep enough Big Green Egg charcoal and accessories in stock.”
Pellet grill sales are beginning to take off. The retailer carries Memphis pellet grills, and added Green Mountain Grills two years ago to be able to offer a more entry-level price point. Brian says, “Customers like that pellet grills have a digital interface that allows them to get great wood flavor for a lot less work than with a kamado.”
The stores’ outdoor kitchen sales have rebounded and are growing again thanks to a new-construction boom in the area. “As people move in, they want to add an outdoor kitchen to the patio,” Brian says. The business offers custom design-build services, an area of growth. Most requested by customers: an L-shaped island with separate sections for grilling and serving, a built-in Twin Eagles or DCS gas grill, a sideburner, refrigerator, and ice maker. “They want all the comforts of an indoor kitchen, outdoors,” he says.
Keyhole Outdoor Living
Before any product makes it onto the sales floor at this retail store, it must meet two criteria: North American-made and Wyoming-proof. “We have harsh weather and high-performance expectations here,” says manager Amanda Hagan. “All of our grills, spas, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, and outdoor furniture have to hold up and perform under wind, snow and temperature extremes.”
Unlike the conservative consumer behavior they experienced in 2016, she says 2017 was a good year with customers spending more and opting for bigger grills, higher-quality models, and pricier outdoor kitchen packages. Gas grills are most popular with customers, according to Hagan, and the best sellers have internal halogen lights and light-up knobs. “People like the lights for the cool factor, but also functionality,” she says. “It gets dark here at 4:30 pm for part of the year.”
She says growing interest in smoke flavor motivated more customers to upgrade gas-grill purchases with optional, built-in, wood-chip-smoker features. Hagan says the Napoleon Charcoal Tray is the store’s top-selling accessory, because it’s an inexpensive way to create a hybrid grill. Sales of charcoal-fueled Primo kamados remained “pretty steady,” and pellet-fueled Memphis Grills “increased slightly,” but Fornetto wood-fired pizza ovens enjoyed a “huge boost” this year, according to Hagan. “Word has gotten out about wood-smoke flavor,” she says. “It’s incredible, especially when it’s cold outside. The flavor is what it’s all about.”
Keyhole Outdoor Living saw growth in its outdoor kitchen business in 2017, but Hagan says customer preferences are changing about island finishes. She says stucco and rock looks are “dated,” and stainless steel is “on the way out” because of the maintenance required to keep it looking good. Instead, customers prefer “a look that’s rustic, but more refined, sleek and modern,” and are increasingly opting for modular outdoor kitchens with powder-coat color or wood-grain finishes.
The store provides inspiration with a large outdoor kitchen display with built-in Kalamazoo, EVO, and Primo grills that greets customers upon entering. “We are trying to emphasize to customers that there’s a whole new world in outdoor grilling,” she says.
The store has had a good response to the classes it hosts periodically. One, a how-to on the Primo Oval, designed to help customers maximize the functionality of the grill, was particularly well received.
While Hagan says the Casper community typically enjoys supporting local businesses and is open to spending a bit more to do so, online competition “rears its head occasionally. Even with MAP pricing protection, online retailers can offer free shipping and no tax, so it sometimes comes into play.”
Mike West and JT Thomas
Tempe, Scottsdale and Peoria, Arizona
After the 2009 housing downturn, this three-store operation shifted focus from outdoor kitchen design-build, to barbecue grills and accessories retailing, and has experienced steady growth since then. Sales were up 10% at the stores in 2017, but, according to general manager JT Thomas, it was the online business that really shined, jumping 40% this year.
Owner Mike West embraced e-commerce about five years ago, and says the business is now “the best of both worlds.” To accommodate the growth, BBQ Island’s main store in Tempe will soon move to a space with double the square footage.
Big Green Egg kamado sales were up 5%, but pellet grills (they carry Green Mountain Grills, Traeger, Memphis, and Cookshack) experienced the most significant jump this year. “The segment is going through the roof; it’s on fire,” says Thomas. Gas grills remain the stores’ “bread and butter,” accounting for 75% of grill sales; 95% are sold as built-ins. The retailer continues to supply grills and outdoor kitchen elements to local contractors, but remains out of the design-build business. Modular and prefab outdoor kitchens have not caught on in the store, according to Thomas.
With the exception of social media content created by an outside company, all marketing is handled in-house. In addition to print and direct-mail advertising, the business relies heavily on events, demos, classes and other experiences to draw customers. Classes are held quarterly at each store, with subjects ranging from how to cook competition-style barbecue, to knife skills and sharpening, to pizza-making.
Events include an annual Turkey Fest, held a few weeks before Thanksgiving. It attracts 20 teams that cook turkeys and side dishes on Green Mountain Pellet Grills, with the gently-used grills pre-sold for pick-up after the event. Hundreds of attendees pay $15 in advance, $20 at the door, to taste and vote for their favorite dish.
“The event has really helped introduce people to pellet cooking,” says Thomas. A new event planned for next year will invite 30 people to a lodge for a three-day, immersive “Camp BBQ” experience, featuring outdoor cooking classes, horseback riding, fishing, and socializing around fire pits.
Rich’s for the Home
Seattle, Bellevue, Bremerton,
Tacoma and Lynnwood, Washington
This five-store operation in the greater Seattle area, family-owned since 1979, had a “strong year,” according to CEO Jon Chapman. Sales were up 10% over 2016, something he attributes to a strong economy in the Pacific Northwest, and pleasant summer weather. He says pellet grills from Green Mountain Grills were definitely the star of the year. “They are flying off the shelves and people are coming in asking for them,” Chapman says.
Some of that gain came at the expense of the Big Green Egg kamados he sells. “Pellets are stealing a bit from kamados, so we had a bit of a slow-down in that category,” he explains. “Kamados are everywhere now. There are a lot of brands and the market is getting a bit oversaturated.” Chapman says smoking – whether with pellets or charcoal – is trending with customers. Pizza ovens, however, have not caught on.
While cart grills still dominate, he says the stores’ outdoor kitchen business is slowly growing. Rich’s for the Home sold a few prefab islands this year, but typically, they partner with local contractors, supplying built-in grills and components on high-end, custom, outdoor-kitchen projects.
Chapman says the company spends most of its marketing dollars on television advertising; a series of 5- and 15-second grill spots have proven effective at bringing in customers. At present, “due to lack of time and manpower,” the stores do not host cooking classes, but Chapman says they may be on the horizon.
He says offering quality, innovative products, and providing services such as assembly, delivery and removal of old grills, adds value and differentiates the stores from Big Box and online competitors. “Big box doesn’t concern me; we have an experienced sales staff and they have ‘clerks,’” he says. “I’m sure we have lost some sales to the Internet, but I also think the Internet has benefitted us in terms of generating leads from manufacturers’ dealer-locator pages that consumers find when researching online.”
Chapman is bullish about the future. “People love to grill and to eat, so as long as manufacturers keep innovating, the barbecue business will be fine.”
Custom Fireplace, Patio & BBQ
Sales have been up each of the past five years at this Bay Area store, but 2017 has been “the best year in a while,” says Paul Gomes. “We have been busy all year, and have had to hire more employees.” Gomes attributes the growth to word-of-mouth referrals.
We have a reputation for being honest and educating our customers,” he says. “People appreciate that we don’t hard-sell or put pressure on them. They have a good experience and fall in love with their grill, and before you know it, they tell their friends and we gain two or three new customers.” He adds that this source of new business, “keeps us so busy, we don’t do much advertising or marketing.”
The outdoor kitchen category is growing in the store. They offer design-build services, but will also partner with landscape architects to supply grills and equipment on projects. Gomes says 90% of outdoor kitchen customers include a 36- to 42-in. built-in grill, a door-drawer unit, and a trash pull-out. But if space and budget are not concerns, customers typically also add a dry pantry and a refrigerator or drop-in cooler. Custom-built islands dominate sales over prefab cabinetry.
Although Big Green Eggs are trending, Gomes says, gas grills are more popular with customers because numerous “spare the air” restriction days limit the occasions people can burn charcoal or wood grills. As a result, he says Big Green Eggs are primarily bought as second grills. “The air-quality restrictions definitely impact our Egg sales because people can’t always use them,” he says. “It’s one of the challenges we face.” Another: the Internet. “It’s a killer. The no-tax situation hurts us.”