By Lisa Readie Mayer
If you’ve read the financial pages in the past year, you’ve likely seen some dire headlines about the Canadian economy (“It’s Official: Canada is in a Recession” – Business Insider; “Canada’s Economic Outlook Downgraded” – The Canadian Press; “Service Exports a Bright Spot Amid General Economic Gloom” –Bloomberg).
Fortunately, the news has been looking brighter lately (“Retail Sales in Canada Continue Ticking Upward” – eMarketer), but the recovery is not uniform across the country. A recent CBC News report estimates the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, Ma nitoba and Prince Edward Island will see two to three percent economic growth this year, while New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland are expected to remain stagnant or even shrink.
Alberta, suffering from the drop in oil prices, and further weakened by extensive wildfires in the Fort McMurray region in May and June, will likely have a slower recovery.
|Jeff Thiessen, Dansons.|
For some Canadian grill manufacturers, distributors and retailers, grill sales have paralleled the health of the economy in their region. For others, it seems as if they never bothered to read the headlines in the first place.
Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons, manufacturers of Louisiana Grills pellet grills and charcoal-fueled ceramic kamados, falls into the latter category.
“We’ve experienced exponential growth in our company for the past three years,” he says. Thiessen says the company’s kamado grills are taking off especially in eastern provinces, while their pellet grills are popular in western provinces, but both are gaining ground across the country.
“These are the two fastest-growing niche categories in the industry,” he says. “We’re seeing an increase in awareness and demand for solid fuels, and people are buying them as a second or third grill on the patio. We offer innovative products at value prices and that has allowed for an awful lot of growth with existing retail customers and helped us secure new customers in both Canada and the U.S.”
|Jeff Kozak, Napoleon.|
According to Jeff Kozak, senior director of Sales – North America, at Napoleon, 2016 has been a “phenomenal year for us locally and globally. Even in areas where the economy has suffered, we have held on to market share.”
He attributes the company’s “north of double-digit growth” in large part to the introduction of their new Rogue Series, a line of “affordable luxury” grills at less expensive price points ranging from C$699 to C$999. “This line is targeted to Millennials and has helped drive business to specialty retailers,” says Kozak. “Consumers want better-quality, higher-end grills with longer warrantees.”
He says the fact there has been an industry-wide decline in unit sales of grills in Canada, while dollar sales are up, “indicates consumers are trading up,” he says, “and is good news for the specialty channel.” According to Kozak, Napoleon hopes to build on its success by expanding its Rogue Series in 2017, introducing a two-burner unit, as well as a porcelain-coated black version of the grill.
Tony Ferraro, general manager of Weber-Stephen Canada, says Weber has also “experienced a growth year. There are still some signs of economic instability, namely in Alberta, but overall we are pleased (with 2016),” he says.
To be sure, those doing business in western Canada have had more of a roller coaster ride. According to Don Hiebert, Sales manager of Concorde Distributing, a distributor of Twin Eagles, Delta Heat, Delsol, and Jackson Grills, based in British Columbia, 2016 has been an “interesting year,” with cycles of “great months followed by off months.” Besides wearing his distributor hat, Hiebert also is Sales manager at grill manufacturer Jackson Grills. He says sales of the brand are down about 10 percent in Canada this year.
Alberta, he says, has been negatively impacted by significant layoffs after oil prices dropped. “When that money is taken out of the local economy, it hurts,” Hiebert says. “People ask, ‘Do I really need a new barbecue?’ They’re waiting until they get a job before buying a new grill or building an outdoor kitchen. Consumers are being more cautious about their spending in general.”
Hiebert says high-end gas grills priced at C$5,000 and up have taken the biggest hit, hurt by price increases of more than 20 percent over last year due to the exchange rate. Hiebert says rainy weather and an unseasonably cool June and July in western Canada further dampened sales.
“By August it was warm, but by then it was too late,” he says. “People are not thinking of buying a grill at that point and will just put it off till next year.” In addition, he blames a growing consumer infatuation with pellet grills for eating into gas grill sales in western Canada.
“Overall, business isn’t as good, but we’re still doing okay,” he says. “Ups and downs are common; you have to keep it in perspective.”
Patrick Bourque, president of Maritime Fireplaces in Moncton, New Brunswick, shares that positive perspective even though he says his sales were about even with last year. “But we’re happy with that because sales were good last year,” he says.
So confident was Phil Squarie Jr. about the potential of the specialty barbecue market in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that he opened Luxe Barbeque Company, a 10,000 sq. ft. store devoted exclusively to grilling and barbecuing. After getting his feet wet selling premium grills from a small section of his casual furniture store, Wicker World, on the opposite end of the city, Squarie felt the time was right to jump in with both feet.
Squarie displays 150 grills on the sales floor, including brands such as Broil-Mate, Broil King, Napoleon, Weber, Jackson Grills, Delta Heat, Twin Eagles, Traeger, Big Green Egg, Bulldog BBQ, and Bradley Smoker, with prices ranging from C$299 to C$14,000.
“We’re hearing from some of our friendly competitors that the Canadian economy is flat and so are grill sales,” says Squarie, “but we are doing great in our new store. Grill sales in our original store are down slightly – probably cannibalized by our new store. But Luxe Barbeque Company is exceeding expectations.”
|Phil Squarie, Jr., Luxe Barbecue Company.|
Squarie hopes the store’s outdoor kitchen sales also will exceed expectations in 2017 – a category he believes has tremendous potential for growth in his market. He displays outdoor kitchen vignettes along with the casual furniture on the sales floor, and says Napoleon Oasis Modular Islands and Big Green Egg cabinet surrounds by Challenger Designs are his biggest sellers. Squarie partners with a local contractor to offer custom islands and subs-out countertops.
“When I first opened this 10,000 sq. ft. store I never thought I’d already be wishing for more space,” he says, “but I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of this Outdoor Room category.”
Kozak also expects to see more Canadians improving their outdoor living spaces in 2017, investing in amenities such as fire tables and outdoor kitchens. “Originally, demand for outdoor kitchens started in western Canada, where there’s not much snow and there are a lot of high-end homes,” he says. “But now the concept is moving east and becoming popular in places like Toronto.”
One change he sees, however, is that consumers are looking for more affordable outdoor kitchen options. According to Kozak, Napoleon has seen a 50-percent increase in sales of its Outdoor Oasis Modular Island components and significant growth in its Patioflame fire pits, thanks to greater product placement in specialty retail stores and advertising and promotional campaigns. “Awareness is spreading,” he says.
Bourque agrees there is greater consumer awareness of outdoor kitchens and a growing desire for them, but noticed that this year his outdoor kitchen sales slowed and people were buying more stand-alone cart grills instead. He believes the phenomenon was a blip due to a sluggish economy and a flattening of new construction in his area. He hopes investing in an Outdoor Room display outside his store next year will correct the course.
“I think people are still putting time, effort and money into their backyards,” he says. “We have sold a lot of Napoleon gas fire tables this year. They’ve been very popular because they allow people to spend extra time outdoors. I still see a large potential in the Outdoor Room that we have not fully tapped. I have a pretty positive outlook about it.”
|Tony Ferraro, Weber-Stephen Canada.|
Charcoal Grilling, Barbecuing and Smoking
Following another U.S. trend, charcoal grilling and smoking are catching on in traditionally gas-grill-centric Canada. Weber Canada’s latest GrillWatch Survey shows 88 percent of Canadian grillers own a gas grill, but 46 percent believe charcoal offers better flavor. Much like their American neighbors, Canadians are increasingly giving charcoal grilling and smoking a try.
“Smoking is a hot-button topic,” says Thiessen. “Awareness of smoking, traditional barbecuing and cooking with wood has been driven by cooking shows and barbecue competition shows on television and in social media. Ten years ago no one was explaining these techniques or talking about the flavor benefits of cooking with wood. Now solid fuel is getting lots of attention.”
“Charcoal grilling is a growing trend and will continue to build momentum in Canada,” adds Ferraro. He says the response to the Weber Summit Charcoal Grill, the company’s top-of-the-line charcoal grill launched in April of this year, has “definitely exceeded our expectations.”
The company also introduced a Limited Edition Master-Touch charcoal kettle in four colors exclusive to the Canadian market – ivory, smoke, spring green and slate. The GrillWatch Survey found that 45 percent of charcoal grill owners prefer a grill with a color finish.
The Weber Grill Academy, the first cooking school dedicated to grilling in Canada, also is helping to fuel the passion for charcoal grilling and smoking, according to Ferraro. Opened in October 2014, the space is outfitted with gas grills, charcoal grills and smokers beneath an elaborate ventilation hood system. It is used as a training center for Weber dealers and corporate staff, and is open to the public for classes, corporate events, team building and more. It does not sell equipment, referring students to local dealers instead.
|Chef Michael Clive, Weber Grill Academy.|
Classes at the school have been to a packed house – including a growing number of women attendees – for grilling classes, which cost C$125 each. Sessions range from beginner lessons on how to grill steak, pizza and other basics, but classes on smoking are among the most popular, according to Weber Grill Academy’s grill expert, chef Michael Clive.
The class teaches the science behind the smoke, going in-depth on topics such as the Minion Method; combining wood and charcoal; black vs. white vs. blue smoke; “the stall,” and more. “Meat is so expensive that the price of a class is worth it to lessen the learning curve and spare the cost of ruined meat,” says Clive.
Leah Bowman, marketing manager at Bradley Smoker, says as interest in the technique grows, more Canadians are looking to purchase their own smoker.
“Canadian cuisine has historically included smoked foods like Canadian bacon, Montreal-smoked meat and smoked salmon,” she says. “The low Canadian dollar has led people to spend more money on DIY home cooking, instead of specialty foods and eating out.” Bowman says cold smoking is becoming more popular, as is smoking turkey for holiday meals and experimenting with smoking single ingredients, side dishes, and vegetables.
In response to the growing trend, Bradley Smoker launched its Smart Smoker this year, an automatic electric smoker with technology that enables the temperature and smoke to be controlled from either the touchscreen control pad or a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. It will also expand its line of signature smoking bisquettes to include varieties such as Beer Bisquettes and Sage Bisquettes that infuse the aromatic hardwoods with hops, her bs or spices.
Squarie says sales of Big Green Eggs, Traeger Pellet Grills and Bulldog BBQ smokers are “really growing” in his store thanks in part to the “lifestyle nature” of the brands. “They generate a lot of repeat sales of charcoal and accessories,” he says.
Squarie hoped to position his store as an authority and grow sales of solid fuel and equipment through Luxe Barbeque Company’s sponsorship of the Winnipeg BBQ and Blues Festival this past summer. The event featured a KCBS-sanctioned cook-off with 25 teams, as well as an opportunity to display product onsite all weekend under the store’s custom tent.
“We sold C$3,000 worth of rubs and sauces in two days, and a lot of people came to the store afterward to buy more,” Squarie says. “The event has gotten our name out there and grown awareness for our store. We’ve already seen a big bump.”
|Patrick Bourque, Maritime Fireplaces.|
Maritime Fireplaces saw a 100 percent increase in sales of charcoal grills over last year, particularly in entry-level charcoal grills, according to Bourque. “It’s still not a big number, but it’s a big increase for us and indicative of a growing interest in cooking over charcoal.”
Bourque is trying to figure out why, after several years of growth, the store’s kamado sales declined in 2016 after peaking the previous year. “It’s a fairly pricey unit, and with the exchange rate, prices are quite a bit higher than in the U.S., so that may have something to do with it,” he says. “But repeat business is still good, with ongoing sales of charcoal and accessories.”
Kozak expects to see consumer enthusiasm for charcoal grilling continuing, along with a desire for trying other outdoor cooking techniques. “The growth in the charcoal market is not anywhere near that of the U.S., but we are seeing Canadians experimenting at the grill,” he says.
To tap into that interest, Napoleon will introduce 18 new accessory products to help expand what consumers can do at the grill. The company will offer several themed packages, such as a chicken-and-ribs starter kit, a pizza kit, and a light-and-healthy grilling set, each with several accessories bundled together.
“This is a buy-more-save-more concept and a one-stop-shop for all the gear needed to prepare these meals or try the techniques,” says Kozak.
“Canadians are not just gas-grilling hot dogs anymore,” he says. “They’re becoming passionate about all types of outdoor cooking.”