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Retailers expand BBQ mix to meet demands of today’s outdoor cooks

Not long ago, the expectation for an outdoor kitchen could be met with just a charcoal grill and a simple patio set in the backyard.

But the times have changed.

Today, gourmet insiders know the novelty of traditional charcoal grills, as well as the routine burger and hot dog menu has cooled, and that consumers are looking to make their backyard barbeque spaces as unique and customized as the flavors and tastes they plan to grill there.

One reason that retailers cite for the evolution of backyard grilling spaces is the ease for consumers to learn and experiment with new grilling methods and food options. A number of accessories, such as cordierite pizza stones, stuffed burger makers, temperature monitors, flavored wood planks, cast iron pans and more all offer convenient ways for consumers to expand their grilling palettes beyond the basic burger without breaking the bank.

For another segment of consumers, outdoor kitchens have become a bigger and bigger investment, retailers said. As the versatility of the cooking methods and flavors become more mainstream with the help of online videos and social media, multifunctional products, such as the ceramic grill/oven/smoker Big Green Egg, which has a suggested retail price of around $550 for a small-sized grill, have found placement in a growing number of backyards and retailers.

“The trend and popularity of outdoor cooking as part of a lifestyle, and all the foods that can be enjoyed with this type of cooking, has increased and increased during the last few years,” Doug Huemoeller, owner of the Kitchen Window in Minneapolis MN, told GOURMET INSIDER®. “It’s really about the consumer better understanding everything that they can do with these products.”

Huemoeller, who began carrying the Big Green Egg almost 20 years ago, said that there was a time not long ago when selling five or 10 Big Green Eggs a year was a big deal. Today, however, with more consumers discovering the versatility of the product, most often through the Internet or word of mouth, the Big Green Egg is one of his top three vendors.

“As more consumers invest in backyard barbeque, they look at what the Egg does functionally. It’s a smoker, a grill, it’s a high temperature pizza oven, it’s a roaster, it’s a cooker and more. So when you take all that combined with the flavor profiles of the food and the amount of control you can have over the process, they just love it,” he said, noting that the large-size egg, with suggested retail price of $849, is his top selling grill.

Kitchen Window has stocked high-end grills and grilling tools since its inception more than a quarter century ago, Huemoeller said. When the store opened in a new location five years ago, space for the grilling category was significantly expanded and now takes up 2,000 square feet — roughly 10% of the total store — by the main entrance, he said.

Though the category — both grills and grilling tools — maintains front and center placement year-round, Huemoeller noted that sales ebb and flow throughout the year. The key grilling season in Minnesota takes place roughly from late-March until June, then after a dip for the fall, the category picks up again around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Keeping the grills and a wide range of accessories in the front of the store serves to remind the consumer that Kitchen Window is committed to stocking a complete, comprehensive grilling section and makes the store a destination for the category, he said.

While Huemoeller has stocked the Big Green Egg for almost two decades, other retailers have only recently hatched the idea of adding the grill to their assortments while also making space in their stores for the multifunctional cookers.

Chef Dave West, owner of The Rolling Pin in Brandon, FL, recognized the consumer interest for Big Green Egg at his store and after three years of contemplation, he took the plunge. The biggest challenge was finding at least 100 square feet of space to display the product. But rising popularity of outdoor kitchens coupled with the fact that Big Green Egg products are sold only at brick-and-mortar stores and not online, made West confident in his decision.

“We had to scale back a number of categories. Coffee took a hit, but it’s a category that had become so readily available elsewhere, so that made sense,” West said. He also scaled back cookbooks and salt and pepper mills for similar reasons.

“Then, once we made space, we relocated all of the BBQ and grilling accessories to the front of the store,” he added.

In addition to stocking the grills themselves, which are available in seven sizes from mini to XXL, West brought in a wide range of “Eggcessories,” or grilling accessories that Big Green Egg offers.

West also decided to keep the store’s other grilling and accessories lines in the mix. This includes Fox Run Brand’s Outset line, CDN time and temperature products and Charcoal Companion, among others.

To round out his grilling category, West also merchandises a large number of rubs and herb mixes designed specifically for grilling. Salt Sisters brand does particularly well, he said, because of its playfully named mixes, like “Dragon’s Breath” and “Flaming Fowl.”

Though adding a full line of grills can be a daunting task for any brick-and-mortar retailer, having the right mix of Eggcessories and other popular grilling tools to stock as part of a backyard barbecue product assortment can also help boast sales.

Kate Pedrick, associate buyer at The Cook’s Warehouse in Atlanta, GA, said that accessories are what drive traffic to the grilling category in store and are easy to update seasonally based on popular trends. For 2015, Pedrick expects that pizza, stuffed burgers and smoking will be popular food trends for the grill and outdoor kitchen, and that vendors have provided a number of accessories to allow consumers to recreate their favorite foods in the backyard.

“It’s all about flavor,” she said. “Once you get that flavor infused into the meat, you can use it for anything, like making soups, for example.”

While The Cook’s Warehouse is also a Big Green Egg retailer, Pedrick rounds out the grilling assortment with accessories that can be used on any grill. For smoking, she said that the Stovetop Smoker from Cameron’s Products has been a top seller, while flavored wood chips and planks have also been popular. She also merchandises cast iron cookware, a grill-friendly cooking product, next to the category to inspire consumers with additional cooking methods as well as providing the store with add-on sales opportunities.

“We encourage customers to try cast iron fry pans or Dutch ovens directly on the grill,” she said. “Accessories like this are great because it’s easy for consumers to buy something new for the grill, especially if they’re unfamiliar with it. Then they’ll read about it, try it, and come back and buy more.”

Also popular in the grilling assortment at The Cook’s Warehouse are the CyberQ and DigiQ control systems. Both tools work with a wide range of grills and smokers and allow users to have control of their grill by monitoring the pit and food temperatures. The CyberQ even allows users to see their cooking progress on smartphones and computers when away from the grill, Pedrick said.

A key driver of traffic and sales for the grilling category as experienced by Pedrick, The Rolling Pin’s West and Kitchen Window’s Huemoeller, is hands-on demonstrations.

“We have Big Green Eggs lit every weekend,” Pedrick said. “The smell of the smoke attracts people to the store and it’s a very easy way to get customers and passerby’s interested in the barbecue category. They want to see what’s going on.”

Huemoeller says that a big driver of grilling accessory sales comes from the more than 125 grill classes he offers annually. While some of those classes include Big Green Egg demonstrations, he said that Kitchen Window typically keeps the classes focused on the food, such as sausage making or winter grilling — a class that includes recipes for oak-planked goat cheese and hickory-grilled bacon mashed potatoes,
for example.

“Big Green Egg has definitely brought in new customers for us, but it’s all about having an overall commitment to grilling,” Huemoeller said. “If all you had was the Egg, it wouldn’t make as much of a connection as when you have a bigger grilling section.”

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