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Hearth & Home January 2019

Kamado All-in-One from Primo Grills.

Spotlight on Kamados

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Ceramic cookers are moving into the mainstream, as manufacturers continue to add new features, more accessories, and island surrounds.

Without a doubt, kamado grills have become part of the mainstream American backyard. Even Homer Simpson has one. In fact, there is an entire episode of the 30‑year animated series devoted to Homer’s purchase of a kamado‑style cooker. (Spoiler alert: He bought it with money his wife Marge intended for a new washing machine.)

Homer soon wins over the angry Marge, and impresses the kids with his delectable barbecue. Before long, the entire town of Springfield is lured to the Simpsons’ backyard by the smoky aromas of Homer’s ribs, pulled pork, and other savory fare. Pitmaster Homer is even challenged to a “smoke‑off” against a celebrity chef, while Marge declares, “This smoker has improved our lives.”

Plenty of real‑life people can relate. Kamado cooking has attained lifestyle status, and many might argue it has improved their lives, as well as their meals. Indeed, fans’ deep passion for and fervent allegiance to the cylindrical cookers is rarely seen in other grill categories.

Although some retailers report that, in the past year or two, pellet grills have begun eating into kamado sales and displacing them as the hottest cookers in the store, others say the kamado business and legion of devotees remain strong.

Debbie Schaeffer, owner of Mrs. G’s Appliances in Lawrence, New Jersey, says since adding the category a few years ago, it has been “growing and bringing lots of new customers to the store, not only to buy the cookers, but the fuel and accessories, as well.”

Tracy Berg of Best Barbeques & Islands in Scottsdale, Arizona, says ceramic cookers are popular with her customers, who increasingly request one be included alongside a gas grill in outdoor kitchens.

As the category matures, kamado manufacturers are working hard to keep their brands fresh and innovative by introducing new models and adding value through problem‑solving features, versatility‑enhancing accessories, and island surrounds.

Large EGGspander by Big Green Egg.

Leader of the Pack

Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement at Big Green Egg, says sales have been “steady” this year. The category leader has added a product designer to its staff, solely dedicated to the development of “impactful” new products, according to Burson. An example is the new “EGGspander” multilevel rack system introduced this year. The tiered system expands cooking surface by accommodating different grids, baking stones, and cookware, including Dutch ovens, cast‑iron skillets, and woks, in over 40 combinations and at different cooking heights.

“It maximizes versatility by making it easy to do multi‑tier, multi‑zone cooking,” says Burson. “For instance, you can cook a ‘cowboy steak’ and a pizza at the same time. Going forward, all of our cooking accessories will integrate into this rack system.”

The new EGG Genius is a smart device that continually monitors and controls cooking temperatures through an app. Ideal for extended cook, such as roasts or low‑and‑slow barbecue, the device incorporates a fan that automatically increases or decreases airflow to maintain the exact, preselected cooking temperature, such as 350 degrees. The device also accommodates up to four probes to monitor meat temperatures and signal doneness, and even alerts the user if the dome lid is lifted.

“You can be sitting by the pool, on the golf course, or otherwise going on with life, without needing to constantly monitor or adjust the fire when you’re cooking brisket or another long cook,” says Burson. “It’s a comfort thing. A kamado has airflow temperature controls. This product shortens the learning curve on how to set the vents to control the temperature. It makes it even easier to use the EGG, and it appeals to people who like technology.”

In response to the growing outdoor kitchen trend, the company has increased offerings of built‑in surrounds with different looks and price points “to appeal to customers who want more than an entry‑level metal stand,” according to Burson. In addition to its existing wood table surrounds and matte‑green‑finished aluminum and stainless‑steel islands, Big Green Egg recently introduced a Modular Nest System of expansion frames that can be linked together to create a custom island.

Modules are designed to hold removable, replaceable shelf inserts in a choice of acacia wood, distressed acacia wood, solid stainless steel, or stainless‑steel grids. “The system is very functional and attractive and people love it,” Burson says. “The stainless‑steel inserts are certified for restaurant use, as are EGGs, so the system can be used in commercial kitchens, too.”

With a focus on maintaining its category‑leader position, Big Green Egg launched a national television marketing campaign this year. Commercials aired on CNBC, the Golf Channel, and other sports and business networks that “skew a little bit male,” according to Burson.

“This national TV advertising was exciting for us and our dealers, and provided a lift in sales. We got an immediate sense that it’s helping, and dealers are very excited and appreciative. I don’t know of another kamado brand – in fact, I don’t know of many grill companies in general – that advertise nationally.

“Everything we do is designed to drive traffic to the dealers,” she continues. “We are only sold through independent retailers, because we still believe the local dealer creates a better experience.”

Cast Aluminum Kamado from Blaze.

Companies Are Carving a Niche Through Innovation

George Samaras, owner of Primo Ceramic Grills, says three years ago his company developed and implemented a robotics system to fully automate the manufacturing process for his kamado line. “It has allowed us to manufacture product for less than it can be sourced in China,” Samaras says. “We can sell an American‑made kamado of better quality for $400 less than the Chinese‑made competitors. It has definitely increased our kamado business this year.”

The company’s traditionally‑shaped Primo Kamado and Primo Kamado All‑in‑One kits are targeted to the entry‑level consumer, according to Samaras. “They want to try a ceramic grill, but their purchase decision is based on price. Being able to offer a value price point has opened the door for many more people to get into the category,” he says. The company’s signature Primo Oval kamado is targeted to the more experienced grilling enthusiast who is ready to upgrade, he adds.

Samaras is not concerned about pellet grills’ potential encroachment on the kamado category, citing ceramic grills’ cooking versatility and broad temperature ranges. He says the new Primo Oval Gas Grill, which features a Primo Oval body fueled by a gas burner and mounted in a stainless‑steel cart base, is an ideal alternative. “It offers the convenience and consistency of a gas or pellet grill,” he says, “but has the efficiency, heat‑ and moisture‑retention benefits of ceramic grills, and can accomplish a broader range of techniques. It’s a good solution.”

The company has several unique new products in development that should be ready to hit the market this year, according to Samaras. “It’s an exciting time,” he says.

Indeed it is. As the number of kamado brands grows, each is staking claim to its piece of the pie through exclusive features and differentiating, value‑added benefits. The Blaze Cast Aluminum Kamado is a heavy‑duty cooker that won’t crack, withstands salt spray, and has a patented tongue‑and‑groove rim that eliminates the need for a gasket. It has an optional rotisserie and a rounded, stainless‑steel shelf that surrounds the cooker and provides work surface.

Broil King Keg from Onward Manufacturing has a lightweight, double‑walled, steel body and an optional trailer hitch for tailgating.

The Saffire Grill and Smoker has a patented Smokin’ Chip feeder to safely and easily add wood chips to the fire throughout the cooking process without opening the lid. Its patent‑pending, stainless‑steel “Crucible” firebox is wrapped with steel and rated up to 2,700 degrees, and the incorporated lift‑out ash pan makes clean‑out easier.

The Caliber Pro Kamado has a patent‑pending flue system, integrated rotisserie option, and a triple‑layered body made of stainless steel and ceramic insulation to retain heat and moisture, while using 40% less charcoal, and weighing a fraction of the amount of traditional ceramic kamados. It’s available in stainless steel or glossy red, black, or turquoise finishes.

Keg 5000 from Broil King.

The Smokin’ Chip feeder from Saffire Grill.

Quickchange Insert from Vision Grills.

Since launching three years ago, Vision Grills has been driven by innovation, earning two Vesta awards and one finalist recognition. Its ICON line, available exclusively for independent dealers, includes a host of upgraded features that come standard on most models, such as an electric charcoal starter, flexible grill light, and color‑coded top and bottom vents to accurately set temperatures. The line is available in red, white, and black with a basket‑weave exterior finish, and a variety of base options.

Its patented Quickchange options offer the ability to interchange gas, pellet, and charcoal fuels by pulling out the charcoal ash drawer and sliding in either the Quickchange Gas Insert or Quickchange Pellet Insert.

“This allows you to cook with the speed and convenience of gas during the week, and charcoal or pellet fuels when you have more time on weekends,” says Scott Walters, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing. “As we all know, pellet grills are a hot item now and lots of consumers like the ease of using pellets. But the heavy, insulating ceramics hold heat and moisture better than metal pellet grills, so this gets 40% hotter, consumes 50% less fuel, and the flavor is better.”

The company’s latest accessory is the patent‑pending Flavor Ring Caddy. The ring sits in the base of the kamado below the cooking grates and can be filled with charcoal, wood chips, or marinades to add flavor to foods, no matter which fuel insert is used. Or, it can be used in tandem with the gas insert, to light a charcoal fire faster and easier.

“We try to offer value to the consumer and the independent dealer,” says Walters. “One grill that does it all saves space on the patio for the consumer and offers benefits for dealers, as well, including a lower‑dollar inventory investment, better product turns, and more money in the bank rather than in brown boxes sitting in the warehouse.

“The consumer can buy the basic ICON Ceramic Charcoal Grill and pair it up with an insert of their choice at the time of purchase, or come back and add the inserts later. Either way, these options make it more economical for the consumer, since adding the inserts costs less than buying additional grills. All of these features and options, and the fact that we have a lifetime warranty, give the dealer a great story to tell that is different from other kamados on the market.”

Classic III from Kamado Joe.

A Ceramic Shake-Up

Big news in the kamado category is the September 2018 acquisition of Kamado Joe by New York City‑based private equity firm Dominus Capital, L.P. This is the firm’s third acquisition in the outdoor cooking category over the past couple years, following the purchase of Masterbuilt Manufacturing and Smoke Hollow, manufacturers of smokers, grills, and fryers available at Big Box stores.

According to a press release, Kamado Joe co‑founders Bobby Brennan and Kerry Coker reinvested alongside Dominus and Masterbuilt’s management in the transaction, and will serve on the board of directors of the joint company. John McLemore is president/CEO and Bobby Brennan has taken on a product development role.

The new company combines Sales, Marketing, Finance, and Operations departments, and will continue to operate out of existing Columbus and Duluth, Georgia, locations. The individual brands will remain distinct in the marketplace.

According to Alicia McGlamory, vice president, Marketing, the Kamado Joe Classic I model will be available in mass market channels, while its Classic II and Classic III models with upgraded feature sets, will be reserved exclusively for the specialty retail and home and hearth channels. The merger will help Masterbuilt grow its presence in the specialty trade and global market.  

“We plan to expand our product offering to protect and grow all markets globally,” says McGlamory. To that end, in December, the company launched its Classic III kamado grill. In addition to innovative features also found in the Classic II, including Kontrol Tower Top Vent, air‑lift hinge, stainless‑steel latch, multi‑panel firebox, slide‑out ash drawer, wire mesh fiberglass gasket, and the Divide & Conquer Flexible Cooking System, the Classic III features a premium cart, aluminum side shelves, charcoal basket, and hyperbolic insert.

“We worked with our partners at Desora – a smart cooking company from Harvard University – to design a revolutionary hyperbolic chamber,” she says. “We’ve re‑engineered the aerodynamics of the grill to increase smoke absorption and evenly disperse heat.”

The new company plans to ramp up marketing in 2019. “Both Masterbuilt and Kamado Joe have passionate, engaged customers,” says McGlamory. “We are excited to bring many live events to market in 2019 and engage with consumers for both brands. We will also continue to build relationships with our brand ambassadors.”

Brennan believes the merger will benefit and strengthen the Kamado Joe brand. “With tremendous opportunities ahead, Kamado Joe has reached an inflection point in our growth story,” he says in the press release. “Our partnership with Dominus will provide the strategic and financial resources we need to become the clear kamado category leader and emerging lifestyle brand.”

The kamado category is evolving, to be sure, but consumer enthusiasm remains strong and the category vibrant as it moves into the mainstream. As Homer Simpson might say, “Woo‑hoo!”

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