Hearth & Home February 2016

Broil King Kegtoberfest.

Two HOT Categories

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Consumers are embracing smokers and kamados; if you’re a specialty retailer, you should as well.

Smoking is smokin’ hot!

  • Better Homes & Gardens magazine declared smoking one of the top culinary trends of 2015.
  • Bon Appetit magazine crowned “Live Fire Cooking” the technique of the year, and named smoking to its list of top restaurant trends.
  • High-brow chefs everywhere are creating dishes with ingredients such as smoke-infused salt, olives, cheese, vegetables, butter, mashed potatoes, soup – even cocktails, chocolate and whipped cream.
  • According to Nation’s Restaurant News, traditional barbecue and smoked foods are also trending as a menu segment in mainstream restaurant chains such as T.G.I. Fridays, Chili’s and Applebee’s. There’s even been an increase in demand for caterers to serve authentic barbecue at wedding receptions and other special-occasion events.
Bravo ceramic kamado from Modern Home Products.

Exposure to smoke flavors in restaurants is one of the factors helping to propel interest from professional chefs and pit masters, to backyard wannabes who are embracing the trend with gusto. The Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s latest consumer study shows 31 percent of grill owners smoked or barbecued meat low-and-slow in the past year.

Karen Adler, president of barbecue cookbook wholesale company Pig Out Publications, says her sales back up this finding. Books on smoking and kamado cooking have been her company’s top sellers for the past couple of years.

“Our best-seller is ‘Smoke It Like a Pro’ by Eric Mitchell,” she says. “I can’t keep it in stock.” The book is one of at least six books on smoking and/or kamado cooking released in 2015, with at least another dozen new titles expected in 2016. “For a niche category, this is amazing,” says Adler. “It means everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to get a piece of this hot-selling topic.”

This comes as no surprise to barbecue expert and cookbook author Steven Raichlen, whose own ode to smoke cooking, “Project Smoke,” a companion book to his popular television series with the same name, is due out in May.

“Smoking is the new grilling,” he says. “It used to be part of the American barbecue subculture and practiced only by a small group in the barbecue belt in the South and Texas. But books, television shows and restaurants have introduced people to smoking and barbecuing, and as a result, their tastes are evolving and they are ready to explore new barbecue techniques. More and more people are into it, and the growth has been helped greatly by the fact that there are now affordable backyard smokers available.”

In fact, ownership of multiple barbecue grills is now at 33 percent, according to the 2015 Weber GrillWatch Survey. The survey also shows ownership of charcoal-fueled grills is at its highest level (56 percent versus gas grill ownership at 59 percent), further evidence that the second grill is increasingly likely to be a smoker, kamado or other charcoal-fueled appliance.

Big Green Egg Culinary Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Which Came First?

Paralleling the popularity of smoking is a tremendous expansion in the kamado category. In chicken-and-the-egg fashion, it’s hard to say whether the growth of kamados fueled interest in smoking or vice versa, but regardless, it’s clear that consumers are eagerly embracing live-fire cooking and buying the necessary gear to do it at home.

Category leader Big Green Egg has seen sales of its iconic green kamado and broad accessory line “continue to grow nicely,” according to Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement. So much so, in fact, that last year the company outgrew its space and relocated to a significantly larger new corporate headquarters. The building contains a new Big Green Egg Culinary Center with instruction and event space large enough to accommodate 75 people. It’s also home to a museum that traces the history of the EGG.

Burson says another measure of the brand’s success is the “exponential growth” in traffic on the company’s website. “As consumer interest in the kamado category grows, more and more people are going to our site to research our products and find their local dealer through our dealer locator tool,” she says.

According to Bobby Brennan, his company, Kamado Joe, has had “phenomenal growth,” averaging more than 80 percent annually for the past six years. He recently opened a second manufacturing facility in China and added more warehouse distribution centers in the U.S. and Canada to keep up with demand. Brennan says dealers and consumers have responded to his “all-included” strategy and $999 price point.

Primo GO.

For 2016, he plans to upgrade features with cast-aluminum top vents, better-sealing silicon gaskets, and counterbalanced lids that can be propped open at any angle, to improve and differentiate his cookers. The company will also introduce a host of new accessories, including new cooking surfaces and a “Joetisserie” rotisserie.

Primo will launch the Primo GO and GO Base, designed to make it easy to take a 210 sq. in. Primo Oval Jr. 200 on the road for tailgates, something that traditionally has been difficult with most kamados due to their heavy weight and unwieldiness. The Primo GO cradles the cooker and has two handles that make lifting and transporting easy. The unit can also be attached to the GO Base stand for full-height use on the patio at home.

Besides these and other long-time kamado companies such as Saffire and Grill Dome, more and more grill manufacturers are getting into the game. Pellet grill company Dansons added the charcoal-fueled Louisiana Kamado to its line-up two years ago in response to dealer requests.

“The growth has been staggering and has had a profound impact on our business,” says company president Jeff Thiessen.

Modern Home Products introduced its Bravo line of ceramic kamados a few years ago to complement its line of Phoenix low-and-slow smoke cookers. “Both lines are doing very well,” says Tom Nitz, vice president Sales & Marketing.

LG Ceramic charcoal barbecue from Dansons.

Second Generation Cookers

Today, there are already a number of variations on the kamado theme, thanks to second-generation products. Unlike most kamados made of ceramic materials, Onward Manufacturing Company’s Broil King Keg is crafted from thermally-efficient, double-walled steel. It requires less charcoal and is lighter in weight than a ceramic kamado. The company has expanded sales with related accessories and a new Keg Cabinet surround, and has built a large and growing community of passionate owners on its Broil King Keg Forum.

For the past two years, members of this group have convened at “Kegtoberfest,” a three-day weekend of cooking and eating where Keg enthusiasts go into “‘mad scientist’ levels of detail about cooking their specialties,” according to Marketing coordinator Rich Graham.

The Black Olive Grill from Sherwood Industries is the first kamado cooker fueled by wood pellets. The Kamado Rocket from Galaxy Outdoor, the 2014 Vesta winner for grill innovation, includes a gas burner in the base for cooking over, or to facilitate lighting, a charcoal or wood fire.

C-Series Kamado Grill from Vision Grills.

The new Vision Hybrid Kamado from Phase 2 offers interchangeable charcoal and gas capability via swap-out inserts, as well as other patented features designed to improve charcoal lighting, temperature regulation and ash removal.

Besides kamados, other unique charcoal- and wood-fueled smokers are emerging. The Gateway Drum Smoker evolved from a desire to get some sleep while participating in barbecue competitions. The sealed drum acts as a pressure cooker, according to owner Tim Sheer, that tenderizes the meat as it cooks. “It’s fast and super-efficient,” he says. “One load of charcoal lasts 14 hours, so while our competitors are cooking all night, we get to sleep. It’s really turnkey and easy to get competition results in the backyard.”

The new heavy-duty, upright cabinet smokers from Steel Mountain Grills combine performance and style thanks to a dramatic flame motif on the front. Vin de Flame’s Il Fumatore incorporates a smoker into a reclaimed wine barrel.

Interest in smoke cooking has also led to a boom in accessories to help achieve wood-smoke flavors on gas grills. Nick Bansal, vice president Sales & Marketing, says Montana Grilling Gear’s Smokerin’ Smoker Set is the company’s best-selling product. The perforated, stainless-steel tube is filled with wood chips, placed on a gas grill’s heat diffuser bars to light, then moved to the grill’s cooking grid where it slowly smolders to release clean smoke.

“It’s been a great seller as a gift item when bundled with wood chips, especially for Father’s Day,” he says.

Steven Raichlen will add a Cast Iron Smoker, a Smoking Food Log Book and other smoke-related products to the Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue line of grilling accessories he has developed in conjunction with the Companion Group.

While most kamado manufacturers offer multiple accessories to expand cooking capabilities for consumers – and add-on sales opportunities for dealers – none offers more than the Big Green Egg. Its hundreds of “Eggcessories” range from silly to high-tech, but most are designed with the latest culinary trends in mind.

“We keep a watchful eye on food and technique trends, and we are always developing new products to facilitate those techniques on the EGG,” says Burson.

Mass Proliferation?

Galaxy Outdoor Kamado Rocket.

There’s only one aspect about the surge in the smoker and kamado categories that some might consider a negative: It has led to their penetration into the mass marketplace. What was once solely the domain of small, independent retailers, is now finding its way onto the floors of Costco, Sam’s Club, Lowe’s and Home Depot. While some manufacturers remain steadfast in their refusal to enter Big Box channels, others are trying to straddle both worlds. They argue, however, that rather than having a negative impact the approach actually helps specialty stores by bolstering awareness of the category in general and of specific individual brands.

Fortunately, interest in smoking and kamado cooking doesn’t seem close to reaching its peak, and the experts predict there are still plenty of sales to go around no matter what the channel.

“I think interest in kamados, smoking, and low-and-slow traditional barbecuing is not a trend that will fade away,” says Raichlen. “It’s here to stay.”

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