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Hearth & Home December 2015

Custom outdoor kitchen and outdoor bar in Franklin, Tennessee, by Embers Grill & Fireplace Store.

Treat People Right

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Zach Watson, Rex and Crystal, are building a strong business by remembering lessons learned when they were young.

Photos: ©2015 Amiee Stubbs Photography. www.amieestubbs.com.

When Zach Watson opened Embers Grill & Fireplace Store in Brentwood, Tennessee, he was 23 years old and fresh out of college with a degree in international business and Spanish.

“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing,” he says.

His business philosophy, however, was crystal clear and rooted in a lesson his grandfather taught him as a child. “My granddad was a farmer and he would have us kids fill bushel baskets with beans,” says Watson. “To us, the bushels looked full, but he’d say, ‘push it down and add some more.’ The lesson was to always exceed expectations, go the extra mile, treat people right, and you’ll have customers for life.”

That philosophy has served Watson well since he left his home state of Alabama, followed his sister Crystal to the “more exciting and faster-growing” city of Nashville, and with backing from his dad Rex, opened the retail store in 2004. Initially, Watson focused on selling gas logs and grills, somewhat familiar territory having grown up in his dad’s propane business with 12 locations throughout Alabama.

L to R: Rex Watson with his daughter Crystal and son Zach.

But about three years ago, he took over the space next to his store, adding 1,500 sq. ft. of showroom to his original 2,000 sq. ft., and shifted the focus to outdoor kitchens.

“It really transformed our business,” says Watson. “We have grown nearly 20 percent each of the last three years. Our customers’ interests were changing, so we had to change with them.” Today, about 50 percent of the store’s business is in built-in grills and components for outdoor kitchens, and 15 percent in freestanding grills. Of the balance, 30 percent is hearth-related and five percent is patio furniture.

Although he doesn’t get involved in the construction of outdoor living spaces, Watson and his eight employees can handle everything else from planning the design to selling, installing and servicing the grills, appliances and other Outdoor Room elements. He sold prefabricated islands at first, but says they were not popular with customers. Now the store teams up with a number of area pool builders, landscape architects, hardscape companies, and general contractors who handle the construction aspects of projects.

“These partners have really helped us grow our business,” says Watson. “They see our knowledge and expertise as an asset because they can send their customers to our showroom to see the options available for outdoor kitchens, and they know we’ll take care of them. We make them look good to their customers. We’re all in this together and help each other.”

In addition to his indoor showroom, this year Watson built a new 1,000 sq. ft. outdoor showroom. Here customers can check out grills, refrigerators, ice makers, sinks, warming drawers, infrared heaters and other elements for outdoor kitchens.

“When people walk outside into this new showroom, they can imagine themselves in their own outdoor space,” he says. “It clicks differently than an indoor display does, and it has made a huge difference.

“We want our displays to show people all the available options,” says Watson. “Many times customers will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even think of that!’ Anything you can do in an indoor kitchen you can do outdoors, and here they can see that’s possible. The more things you have in your outdoor kitchen, the less you have to run in and out, and the easier it is for cooking and entertaining. It’s not just outdoor kitchens; outdoor bars with refrigerators are becoming popular, too.”

Custom outdoor kitchen in Brentwood, Tennessee, by Embers Grill & Fireplace Store.

Watson credits Alfresco co-founder and vice president Sales and Marketing Dale Seiden with teaching him about outdoor kitchen design, and the need to have designated areas for food-prep, cooking and serving. Typically, initial designs will incorporate these three areas and maximize the number of appliances and amenities for the available space. Each element is priced separately so customers can pick and choose according to their budget and needs.

“If I don’t show them what’s possible, they may have never known that these products and entertaining options existed for outdoors.”

He says his average outdoor kitchen sale is between $12,000 and $15,000 for the appliances and components. The current trend is to include both a gas and charcoal grill, and in many cases an Alfresco gas-fired pizza oven as well. He says his customers have not been interested in smokers or pellet grills.

“The Costco next door sells pellet grills, so we don’t even carry them,” he says. “We try to only sell products you’re not going to find everywhere else.”

Watson has been successful with grilling accessories and a locally-produced line of rubs and seasonings. Outdoor fire pits have also been increasingly popular with Embers’ customers, particularly a line crafted by a local artisan called Fire Pit Art. The wood- or gas-fueled fire pits are made from durable, heavy-duty, quarter-inch-thick carbon steel, and are beautiful works of art, according to Watson. “We work a lot with local vendors whenever possible,” he says.

In fact “shop local” has become a sort of war cry for the retailer. “We preach the ‘shop local’ philosophy every day,” he says. He has that message emblazoned on his website, on signage throughout the store, and on flyers he distributes to every customer listing the benefits of shopping at local retailers versus mass merchants or Internet retailers.

Watson even met recently with his Congressional representative regarding the Marketplace Fairness Act that proposes to level the playing field between online and brick-and-mortar retailers by requiring online and catalog sellers to collect sales tax.

“It’s a lot of work to promote the ‘shop local’ concept, but it’s been worth it,” he says. “I think it’s making a difference in helping people understand the advantages of shopping with us. We have the product knowledge and expertise, and our own on-staff installers. We offer customer education, after-sale service, and warranty support if something goes wrong. You’re not going to get these things if you shop online or at a mass retailer.”

Another benefit mass merchants and online retailers could never provide is Embers’ “Demo & Dine” program, a combination grill demo, cooking class and party at a customer’s home after their new outdoor kitchen has been installed. As part of Demo & Dine, the customer invites a group of friends and neighbors over for an in-depth tutorial on the use and care of the equipment, and a dinner is supplied and cooked by Watson and the Embers team.

The menu is tailored to showcase the equipment and accessories purchased, but might include dishes such as a whole chicken cooked on the rotisserie; steaks seared on the infrared burner; grilled pork tenderloins or salmon filets; pizza or lamb chops in the pizza oven; sautéed vegetables, wild rice or bananas foster on the sideburner; French bread in the warming drawer; and much of the meal seasoned with rubs and sauces carried in the store.

“We don’t just install the appliances and walk away,” says Watson. “We want our customers to know how to use them. People might think they’ll never use their sideburner, but when they know what to do with it and the other features on the grill, they’ll be more satisfied with their experience. It’s the difference between ‘liking’ their grill and ‘loving’ their grill, and hopefully, the more they love their grill the more they’ll tell their friends about it.”

According to Watson, the friends and neighbors attending the Demo & Dine dinner might not be ready to buy at that moment, but it plants the idea. “They are targeted leads because once they see some of their neighbors building outdoor kitchens, they’ll want one too,” he says.

Displays in the store are elegant and well-thought out, with ample space for customers to inspect the models.

Demo & Dine has become a very effective marketing tool, according to Watson, and part of a new business-building strategy he is implementing with the help of his sister Crystal, who joined the Embers team full-time two years ago to handle marketing. “She’s unbelievable at marketing,” says Watson, “and we work really well together.”

Though Watson says they continue to do some traditional print advertising, the pair shifted their marketing resources in recent years. “We decided to spend our time rather than our money advertising our business,” he says.

That means Watson and his employees often demo and serve food at community festivals, school and charity fundraisers, and other local events where they can get in front of people. They also grill at neighboring businesses, for instance grilling and serving food at their bank’s customer-appreciation day, a local luxury car dealership, and a granite supplier, both as a way to show support and a chance to gain exposure to potential new customers.

“We believe it’s more effective to spend our time and $100 on food to do events like this, rather than spend $100 on advertising,” he says. “It gets our name out there, and although it might not result in an immediate sale, it builds relationships in the community that we think produce a better return-on-investment in the long run.”

Often the person manning the grill at these events is Watson’s dad, Rex. After selling their propane company, Watson’s parents moved to Nashville six years ago, and Rex helps out his son when he’s not doing mission work in Mexico. “He is not involved in the day-to-day running of the store, but has been a great mentor,” says Watson. “And he is there to help whenever we need it, whether that’s loading trucks or cooking at community events.”

In addition to off-site demos, the Embers team grills at the store every Saturday. “There is a great food scene in Nashville, so we talk about food a lot with our customers,” Watson says. “We used to demo hamburgers and hot dogs, but now it might be paella, or teppanyaki in the wok, or grilled pizza. It gets people excited and makes them happy. When someone comes in and you give them a pork taco or a slice of grilled pizza or something else good to eat, they appreciate it, and they’ll remember your business.

“At the end of the day, it all goes back to what my dad and grandad taught us about doing a good job and treating customers well,” he says. “I want to live up to their example.”

SNAPSHOT

Embers Grill & Fireplace Store, Brentwood, Tennessee.

Store Name: Embers Grill & Fireplace Store

Location: 7114 Moores Lane, Brentwood, Tennessee

Owners: Zach Watson, Rex Watson

Other Key Executives: Crystal Watson

Year Established: 2004

Website: www.embersstore.com

E-mail: zwatson@embersstore.com

Phone: (615) 309-7738

Number of Stores: 1

Number of Employees: 8

Annual Sales: Hearth: 30%

Barbecue/Outdoor Kitchens: 65%

Patio: 5%

Sq. Ft. of Building Space:

Indoor Showroom: 3,500 sq. ft.

Outdoor Showroom: 1,000 sq. ft.

Lines Carried:

Hearth: Astria, Empire Comfort Systems, Everwarm, Jøtul North America, R H Peterson Co., Vantage Hearth

Fire Pits: American Fyre Designs, Fire Pit Art, Vin de Flame

Barbecue/Outdoor Kitchens: Alfresco, AOG, Artisan, Big Green Egg, Blaze Outdoor Products, Broilmaster, Fire Magic, Summerset, True, Weber

Patio: Polywood

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