By Lisa Readie Mayer
Few people know the barbecue industry better than Scott Walters. Over the past 50 years he has been a barbecue grill distributor; a manufacturers’ rep with a 30-plus-state-territory; a specialty hearth and barbecue retailer with four stores; and vice president of Marketing for the former premium grill company, Ducane.
He is now a manufacturer, having launched Phase 2 LLC in 2006 with his wife, Carolyn Richards. The company’s Vision brand kamado grills are creating buzz in an already hot category thanks to their innovative, second-generation feature sets.
“We saw the excitement building in the kamado category, but we knew we wanted to offer something different that would improve performance and offer greater value,” says Walters, the company’s executive vice president, Sales and Marketing. They named the brand Vision Grills, symbolic of the visionary products they aspired to create.
“Not much had changed since the kamado was first introduced to the U.S.,” he says. “Our goal was to be an innovator – to build a better mousetrap. We designed a totally unique kamado, but while we waited for the patents to come in, we went to market with a ‘me-too’ product in the meantime to build our brand.”
|Signature Series Grande Kamado.|
Their initial offering was the Vision Classic Series, a line of traditional ceramic kamados that included side shelves, two-tier stainless-steel cooking grids, a rolling cart base, calibrated top and bottom vents, a temperature gauge, a lid-closing “shock-absorber,” and a grill cover in the base price of $699. “It was a great value,” Walters says.
He and Richards, the company’s executive vice president, logged 240,000 miles calling on warehouse clubs, hardware co-ops, home improvement chains and catalog retailers before breaking open their first major account, the Frontgate catalog. That placement opened the door at Sam’s Club, Home Depot, True Value, Do It Best Hardware, and other major retailers.
“By necessity, our business model was opposite the usual route,” Walters says. “Our competitors had most of the independents tied up and the company was just Carolyn and myself, so initially we didn’t have enough staff, resources or product differentiation to target independents first. Targeting catalogs, co-ops and Big Box stores was our best option and helped to brand us.”
He believed that the product could sell in the mass channel without the assistance of knowledgeable salespeople, because, he says, “The kamado consumer is a very smart and educated shopper. They do their research online first, and compare brands, features and prices before ever walking into a store.”
He also felt consumers would respond to the brand’s all-included value pricing. “Most kamados are sold a-la-carte, so by the time someone buys the necessary features, they are investing well over $1,000,” Walters says. “That’s a lot of money for many people.”
Three years later, with patents pending, Vision Grills finally introduced its new-and-improved Professional Series. According to Walters, the line addresses common complaints consumers have with kamados.
“Our focus groups showed many people don’t like lighting the charcoal – they think it’s messy and dirty,” he says. “They also have difficulty controlling the temperature, and they find ash-removal and clean-up a nuisance.”
The Professional Series kamados include a “starter port” through which an electric coil lighter can be inserted to ignite the charcoal in the base. When coals are lit, the lighter is removed and the door to the slot closes, sealing off the opening. The units also have calibrated control knobs for the top and bottom vents, making it easier to regulate heat and smoke levels. A slide-out ash drawer in the base simplifies ash removal and clean-up. Last year, the line, which retails from $799, won a Vesta Award at the HPBExpo.
“Our goal was to make a product that was fun and easy to use, even for someone new to kamados,” says Walters.
|Signature Series Plaza.|
Entering the Specialty Space
As recognition of the Vision brand grew, Walters says independent dealers began inquiring about carrying the product. “I knew we had to have an entirely different grill for independent dealers,” he said. That led to the development of the Signature Series, a line exclusive to the independent retail channel with unique, mosaic-like exterior embossing, upgraded side shelves, several optional bases, and availability in a wide array of colors including white, purple and orange.
But the series’ most distinguishing feature is that it is a hybrid with the ability to convert from charcoal to gas by sliding out the ash drawer and inserting a gas-burner drawer in its place. According to Walters, the CSA-approved, patent-pending 25,000 Btu burner produces temperatures between 175 and 600 degrees, and is highly efficient thanks to the insulating properties of the cooker’s ceramic walls, and the 14-in. round, heat-deflector lava stone positioned above it.
The stone deflects and conducts heat while catching and vaporizing grease and drippings to add flavor. The stone may also be used as a cooking surface. The unit has a lifetime warranty on the kamado materials and retails between $1,199 and $1,999 depending on the model.
“Some consumers are resistant to spending over a thousand dollars on a kamado because it is perceived as a cooker you would use only on the weekend,” Walters says. “But with the gas option, it’s easy to use during the week when people are busy. The product is delivered all in one box, with everything included in the price, so it’s convenient for the dealer because it reduces the number of SKUs and makes it easier to manage inventory.”
The Hybrid Gas Drawer will be available in both the Signature Series and Professional Series lines, and as an aftermarket, retrofit accessory for existing Professional C Series and S Series kamados.
“The response has been phenomenal; it’s very exciting,” says Walters, who notes that 50 percent of recent retailer orders have been for the hybrid models. “Dealers get it. They really like our pricing structure, and our patent locks up this hybrid technology.”
Perhaps avoiding some of the negative reaction hurled at manufacturers who start out in the specialty channel and migrate to Big Box stores, Vision’s reverse go-to-market strategy seems not to be hindering its entry into independent stores. “Once we had brand recognition, specialty dealers started calling us wanting the Vision Brand. So we started to move toward that market – which, by the way, is the market I started in. The independent retailer drives the industry.
“We offer good, better, best lines, with the independent retailer getting a completely different look, better feature set, great quality and upscale value,” says Walters. Today, Vision’s Classic B Series is sold mainly in club stores, the Pro Series in Big Box stores, and the Signature Series exclusively in specialty stores. “But independent dealers can choose to carry all the lines, if they wish,” he says.
Vision will introduce four new bundled accessory kits at Expo, one being a pizza kit with all the gear needed to make pizza on the cooker. “Like with the grills, this all-included approach makes it easier for the retailer by minimizing SKUs,” according to Walters. The company will also introduce a new lump charcoal blend of beech, birch and oak, available in 10- and 20-lb. bags or boxes with handles.
The company manufactures its kamados from its own 450,000 sq. ft. factory in China. It currently has one warehouse in St. Louis, but plans to eventually add facilities on the West Coast, East Coast and in Texas.
To help manage their growing independent retail sales, Walters and Richards have hired Al Cockrill as vice president Sales and Marketing. A former Traeger executive, Cockrill is charged with establishing a team of reps to call on independent dealers. He is also developing marketing supports including point-of-purchase signage, a dealer locator page on the website, demonstration help, instructional DVDs, and social media campaigns.
The company has teamed with professional chef Brad Orrison and his award-winning pitmaster sister Brooke Lewis of The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint, and will tie-in with local and national barbecue events such as The Royal and Memphis in May.
“Part of the reason we’ve had so much success is that we are so passionate about our product and our passion is infectious,” says Walters. “I’ve had a long history in the barbecue business and I understand the category exceptionally well, but creating this grill has truly been the most fun of all my years in the industry.”