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Hearth & Home October 2018

Shrine of Barbecue

By Lisa Readie Mayer

PhotoS: ©2018 Robin Andrew. WWW.UNPOSED.COM.

In Ottawa, partners have created a retail juggernaut with in-depth staff training, great customer service, and a fun atmosphere, and now they're heading south (Florida?).

If you phone Capital BBQ and happen to be put on hold, you’ll hear a recorded message: “Welcome to the Shrine of BBQ.”

In fact, many consider a visit to this 30-year-old barbecue retail store in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, an experience not to be missed. It starts as soon as you drive into the parking lot and see the exterior of the building painted with a dramatic mural of red, orange, and yellow flames flickering through a giant grilling grid. Before you can walk through the front door, you must pass a dozen grills lined up in the outdoor display and demo area.

Inside is a griller’s heaven, packed with a vast selection of gas, charcoal, and pellet grills, kamados, smokers, pizza ovens, grilling tools, accessories, fuels, sauces, seasonings, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, and more. There is also an in-store, vented kitchen for live-action grilling demos, cooking classes, and clinics.

The staff is a walking encyclopedia of barbecue and grilling know-how, well trained on all products on the sales floor and well-versed in all types of grilling and barbecuing techniques. In fact, nearly everyone on the sales staff is a certified Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) judge.

Chuck Shabsove, president of Capital BBQ.

“The minute you arrive, you know you’re in barbecue mecca,” says Chuck Shabsove, president of Capital BBQ. “We are the only store in Ottawa that’s dedicated to the barbecue category. But it’s not just that we have a huge breadth of barbecue products. We invest in staff training.

“We have demo models of every grill we sell and the staff tests all of them, as well as every bottle of sauce and seasoning. It’s invaluable to be able to talk from personal experience, especially when you’re trying to sell a $3,000 or $4,000 barbecue, but even when someone just asks for a rub recommendation. We get so much positive feedback from our customers about our education and communication efforts. It sets us apart.”

“We understand barbecues,” adds Joe Whitfield, co-owner of the business. “We enjoy engaging with customers and take the time to answer questions and talk recipes. We proudly display our KCBS diplomas and aprons in the store. I think it adds another layer of credibility.”

This deep level of product knowledge and bend-over-backwards customer service has been a guiding principle since 1989, when Shabsove first purchased a foundering appliance and grill store called Capital City Appliance. Shabsove, had been working in his family’s garden center and figured selling and repairing appliances would be a more recession-proof, year-round business.

“Appliances and barbecues would always need fixing, right?” he recalls thinking with a chuckle. “But then people stopped fixing things and we became a throwaway society.”

Shabsove attributes the changing consumer mindset at the time to the influx of Big Box stores stocked with lower-quality, “disposable” versions of the appliances and grills he was selling. In an effort to better compete with the chains, the inherently creative thinker and problem-solver started a buying group in the mid-1990s to gain leverage for his store and other independent retailers.

When two members of the group, Chadwicks, a former Sunbeam outlet store, and Hacks, a Black & Decker outlet store, both about six hours away in Hamilton, Ontario, were ready to fold, Shabsove bought the failing businesses in 2001 and merged them into one store, Chadwicks & Hacks.

In 2005, he ditched the appliances at Capital City Appliance, rebranded as Capital BBQ, and shifted the focus to quality barbecues backed by excellent service and support, the kind of products and intangibles not available at chain stores. The strategy had a positive impact on business. Today, Capital BBQ generates $3.7 million in annual sales out of a 5,000 sq.ft. retail showroom.

The Chadwicks & Hacks sister store has achieved steady growth as well, surpassing $4 million in annual gross sales of barbecues, fireplaces, and vacuums. It consistently earns local “Readers’ Choice” awards for best customer service, best fireplace shop, best vacuum store, and best grill store. “Our business has been around for over 60 years, and we have a reputation for customer service,” says Chadwicks & Hacks’ general manager and co-owner Gary Green.

Green says Hamilton is a steel town, with more middle-income consumers compared to higher-income Ottawa, so demographics dictate differences in product mix and sales trends at the two stores. For example, there is less demand for outdoor kitchens at Chadwicks & Hacks than at the Ottawa store. And, Green says, given that many in the Hamilton area work in the steel industry, there has been “a real backlash against China-built products” and a growing preference for made-in-North America brands.

Also, since barbecues must share the store’s 5,500-sq. ft. showroom with fireplaces – a category that has been “growing tremendously” at the store – and vacuums, there is no room for a working demonstration kitchen or cooking classes.

Weber grills.

Barbecue Sales Trends

Gas grills are the top sellers at both stores – they carry Napoleon, Weber, Broil King, Crown Verity, and DCS. According to Shabsove, the price-point sweet spot is $1,100 to $1,499 at Capital BBQ, but the store stocks grills for every budget, from $249 up to pricey premium models. He notes that while gas grill sales were up overall this year, there was “a little bit of a dip” in the highest-end units.

“Manufacturers such as Napoleon have added interior and knob lighting, ceramic infrared burners, and charcoal trays, so people can get a good-quality barbecue with all the features they want, for less money,” he says. “These barbecues are a good value and are taking away from super-premium grill sales.”

Whitfield says pellet grills are “really taking off. We have noticed a big difference this year.” The retailer carries “good, better, best” lines from Traeger, Memphis, and Yoder. “People like the Wi-Fi features, and the wider temperature ranges now make pellet grills more versatile for year-round use in Canada,” he says. According to Green, pellet grill sales are up at Chadwicks & Hacks, too. “They are very easy to use,” he says, “and quite frankly, women prefer them over charcoal kamados.”

In fact, the growth in pellet grills seems to have come at the expense of kamados in both stores, according to Shabsove. Capital BBQ dedicates two rooms to Big Green Egg, Primo, and Kamado Joe cookers, accessories, charcoal, and woods, but he says kamado sales declined slightly this year. “They’re everywhere now – at pool and spa dealers, garden centers, Big Box stores, Costco road shows,” he says. “The increased competition hurt our sales.”

Kamado Big Joe 24 inch.

Pizza ovens have been an unexpected bright spot. “Previously, we weren’t able to get much traction with the category,” Shabsove says, “but, this year we had really good success with the Fornoteca Duetto oven. It has two gas burners beneath the pizza stone, and the stone continually rotates so it heats evenly, gets up to temperature in 10 minutes, and cooks a pizza in 90 seconds. A wood-fired oven with the fire at the back takes two hours to get to temp, and you need to manually rotate the pizza because of hot and cold spots.

“The Fornoteca oven is portable and affordable ($2,100 Canadian) and we sold quite a few units this year. It’s been very successful with homeowners, and even golf courses and restaurants.”

Outdoor kitchens also are trending at Capital BBQ. “We are a few years behind the U.S., but interest is really starting to grow,” says Shabsove. “People are ripping up their yards, putting in pools, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, electric heaters. The more outdoor kitchens we do, the more referrals we get, and it compounds the growth.”

While the store has partnered with a local construction outfit on custom projects for years, Shabsove says changes are afoot in the category. “We’re seeing a lot fewer stone islands lately, resulting in a dip in our built-in door and drawer component sales. Now, customers are really attracted to modular outdoor kitchen systems. They’re lighter weight; you don’t need a stone guy or framing guy; there are more finish options to choose from, and you can have it now and don’t have to wait.”

Last winter, the store’s sales team attended a hands-on training session for Danver and Brown Jordan Modular Outdoor Kitchens at the Danver headquarters in Connecticut. “Seeing how they’re made and meeting their designers helped our team understand the line better and be more confident selling a $30,000 or $40,000 outdoor kitchen. We are up 200% in Danver kitchens this year, which we attribute to the training.”

Capital BBQ also carries Napoleon Oasis modular systems. “It’s a very good price point,” says Whitfield. “We show customers how they can create an outdoor kitchen that’s comparably priced to a large cart barbecue. We tell them, ‘If you ever move, you can take it with you, or if you outgrow it, you can sell it on Craigslist and get a new one.’”

The Capital BBQ Store.

Attracting Barbecue Pilgrims to the Shrine

Their own in-store, live-demonstration grilling kitchen is busy with free classes and clinics most weekends throughout the year, often hosted by guest chefs from the Canadian Culinary Federation, an organization to which the store belongs. “Professional chefs with our equipment, it’s a great mix,” says Shabsove. “The events bring people to the store. They ask questions, get inspired about what they can cook on our barbecues, try out new sauces and rubs.” The store also ties in with experts from the Canadian BBQ Society to teach competition-style barbecue clinics.

But customers don’t have to wait for a class to see grills in action. “We offer test drives any time,” says Shabsove. “We’ll supply the food, or customers can bring their own and cook. If a salesperson is talking with someone about a grill, they can say, ‘Hey, do you want to try it?’ It helps close the sale.”

This is just one of many ways in which Capital BBQ tries to differentiate itself from the competition. Another is product mix. According to Shabsove, the store’s membership in the 280-independent-retailer-strong United Buyers Group, provides access to exclusive barbecue lines and special-edition colors and features not found in other stores.

Outdoor heaters and accessories.

Shabsove and Whitfield regularly revamp the Capital BBQ showroom to “keep it fresh.” And they have expanded their service offerings, making annual barbecue tune-ups available to customers, in addition to ongoing customer service and support.

“In the age of social media, good service is a chance to really shine,” notes Whitfield. “If we do a good job, customers will tell their friends and post about their positive experience. Most of our customers have been referred to us or find us while researching online.”

This summer, the store used social media to turn local news reports about stray grill-brush bristles getting lodged in food, into a sales opportunity. “Every time the issue was in the news – and it was frequently – we would repost the story with a link to our website page about bristle-less brushes,” Shabsove says. “We had very good success with that. We sold bristle-less brushes like they were going out of style.”

Next year, they plan to expand social media efforts with a food blog to drive visits to their online store, BBQing.com. Launched in 2015, the site sells a broad array of barbecue grills and accessories, for shipping only within Canada. Their second Internet site, BarbecuesandGrills.com, is dedicated to Napoleon grills; it has warehousing in the States and ships to both the U.S. and Canada.

Shabsove says they hope to expand their BBQing.com marketplace to the States, as well. “If you want to exist in this online business, you need to be south of the border,” he says. “We are looking to buy an established brick-and-mortar location in the States, somewhere in a warm climate, accessible by direct flight – maybe Florida.”

According to Shabsove, online sales in the U.S. could “get more complicated” in the coming year, due to uncertainties about sales-tax collection. Tariffs could add another potential hurdle. “On the fireplace side, we’ve already gotten notification that venting is going up 25%,” says Green. “I think that will really impact fireplace sales. But there are so many moving parts and we still don’t know how it will all shake out. It’s a lose-lose situation and very unfortunate for everyone.”

In the meantime, Capital BBQ will continue to use clever marketing infused with humor and wacky antics, to stay ahead of the competition, gain customers, grow sales, and reinforce its message that this is indeed a shrine to barbecues. Case in point: For an ad campaign, splashed across 40 Ottawa city buses from April through September, Shabsove donned a Superman costume and held up a grilled chicken under the tagline, “We Create Backyard Heroes.”

A high-energy television commercial featuring “Ribeye Joe” Whitfield taking viewers on a mad-dash tour of the store, and strumming a Big Green Egg guitar, aired during NHL hockey playoff season. Shabsove says the spot was one of its most successful marketing efforts ever, generating tremendous customer response and directly attributable sales.

“The day after it first aired, one gentleman came in and spent $5,000,” he recalls. “He had been watching the game with his brother, saw the commercial and said, ‘Hey, we both need new barbecues,’ and he came in the next day. It was quite amazing.” The spot scored great post-season play as well, racking up 300 views online. “We’ll definitely be doing more videos this year,” Shabsove says.

“Creativity and innovation are the best ways to stick out from the competition and send the message that this store is fun,” he adds. “And life is too short not to have fun.”

SNAPSHOT

Store Name: Capital BBQ

Address: Grenfell Crescent, Ottawa, Canada

Number of Stores: 2

Sister Store: Chadwick & Hacks

Owners: Chuck Shabsove and Joe Whitfield (Gary Green is a partner in Chadwick & Hacks)

Year Established: 1989

Web Site: www.bbqing.com

E-mail: chuck@bbqing.com

Phone: (613) 228-0009

Annual Revenues:
Capital BBQ: $3.7 million
Chadwicks & Hacks: $4 million

Number of Employees:
Capital BBQ: 12 in high season, 6 in low season
Chadwicks & Hacks: 6

Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Capital BBQ Showroom: 5,000
Capital BBQ Warehouse: 8,600
Chadwicks & Hacks: 5,500

Lines Carried:
Barbecue: Broil King, Big Green Egg, Crown Verity, DCS, Kamado Joe, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Napoleon, Primo, Traeger, Weber, Yoder
Hearth at Chadwicks & Hacks: Amantii, Bionaire, Dimplex, Heat & Glo, HPC, Majestic, Napoleon, Regency, Timberwolf, Valor, Vermont Castings

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