Engaging the Senses
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Some might argue that opening a barbecue store in downtown Montreal at the start of winter and on the brink of the Canadian economic downturn was a risky – perhaps even foolhardy – move. But Ryan Bloom, owner of Urban Bonfire, is used to doing things differently.
In his previous career as a boutique real estate developer, he bucked conventional wisdom by seeking out independent, specialty retail stores rather than chains, to create vibrant, mixed-use projects.
“We were anti-shopping centers, malls, and strip malls because everything is the same,” he said. “Mom and pop stores are far more interesting and unique, and drive a better consumer experience.”
|Ryan Bloom, owner of Urban Bonfire.|
That philosophy was central to his plan for creating a barbecue store that offered a better retail experience. He believed Montreal’s “extremely challenging” market with harsh winters and short summers would require a different approach than what he calls the “extremely antiquated” retail model most independent grill dealers follow.
“In North America, there are very few stores that specialize exclusively in barbecues,” he says. “Most are hearth or hardware stores with grill departments where product is lined up on the sales floor. We wanted to create an entire store dedicated to grilling and barbecuing, with an interactive style of retailing, vignette-based displays, and a design aesthetic on the order of a Williams Sonoma.” The extended soft opening was part of Bloom’s tactical plan to fine-tune his experience-driven operation before the summer onslaught started.
The approach worked. Since Urban Bonfire first opened in a tiny 500 sq. ft. space in October 2013, sales have increased 70 to 75 percent each year. Having outgrown its initial location, the current 4,000 sq. ft. store features six outdoor kitchen display vignettes – one on an outdoor terrace and the rest inside the showroom – with each showcasing built-in grills and appliances from an individual brand. (The store sells grills from Caliber, Lynx, Sedona by Lynx, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Saber, and Wolf.)
There is also an area called “The Pantry” stocking a huge selection of tools, accessories, charcoal, woods, seasonings and other consumables. Merchandising throughout the store is stylish, modern and fun, and the vibe is high-energy.
Interactive customer events are central to the business model and the foundation of the store’s marketing program. In addition to demoing every Saturday, Urban Bonfire frequently hosts large-scale manufacturer- or category-specific events throughout the year to educate new owners on how to use their grills, or to let prospective buyers see them in action. For instance, they hold kamado workshops four times a year to teach attendees (30 to 40 per session) how to grill and smoke on cookers from Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, Primo and Caliber.
The store offers cooking classes and is available for small and large private events, accommodating up to 150 people for everything from birthday parties, to dinner parties with customized grill menus, to corporate team-building events. A 400 sq. ft. event space on an outside terrace features an outdoor kitchen with Lynx grills and appliances, while a fully functioning outdoor kitchen with built-in Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet grill, pizza oven and other appliances anchors the event kitchen inside the store.
The store has a demo model for every brand offered, so if customers are on the fence about a grill purchase, they are encouraged to bring in a couple of steaks and give it a test drive.
|A variety of products are on display, and also ready for demonstrations.|
“When we do that, we have a guaranteed 100 percent sales-closure rate,” says Bloom.
He says the technique is especially effective with kamados, so much so that the category now represents two-thirds of the dealer’s grill sales volume. Bloom says, despite an average price tag around C$1,700, most of his customers are buying a kamado as a second grill. “Their gas grill is like their Honda Accord; they use it for every day running around,” he explains. “But their kamado is like a sports car that they take out to use on the weekends.
“We have seen growth in every product category,” Bloom says, “but I love selling kamados. There is a much greater long-term value thanks to ongoing repeated sales of accessories, charcoal and other consumables.”
Urban Bonfire has developed its own branded line of 10 barbecue sauces and spices sold in-store and in grocery stores, butcher shops, farmers’ markets and other specialty outlets throughout the region.
“These items are conversation starters for us,” says Bloom. “People read the story on the label and want to find out more. The products drive people to our website, Facebook page and other social media, and then to the store.”
One significant departure from Bloom’s original business plan was a shift in focus from individual grills and accessories to outdoor kitchens. Initially, according to Bloom, grill sales accounted for 85 percent of the store’s revenue, with the remaining 15 percent coming from outdoor kitchen projects. But, within a year, the scenario had completely reversed; today outdoor kitchens represent 85 percent of sales.
“I quickly realized that the economic model is not feasible on grills alone,” says Bloom. “It’s a highly seasonal business with extremely low margins. By the time you factor in the time spent on assembly, delivery, educating customers and dealing with any warranty issues, it’s very hard to make money on grills. If I was just selling grills and accessories, I would probably not still be in business.”
|Stefan Marchant, partner and kitchen designer.|
Bloom and his business partner, Stefan Marchant, an engineer by training and the company’s chief outdoor kitchen designer, fully embraced this organic change of direction. The company offers in-house design services including planning, equipment selection, installation, and ongoing annual care and maintenance packages after the sale.
Urban Bonfire now even manufactures its own line of custom outdoor kitchen cabinetry, constructed in Canada from hand-welded stainless steel, and custom-painted in the customer’s color of choice. “We don’t sell any prefab outdoor kitchens because we’ve found that our customers want choices,” says Bloom. “We can offer customization at prefab prices and this fills a big void in the market.”
Entry-level prices for a modest-sized outdoor kitchen with a built-in Saber grill start around US$7,500. Bloom says their average outdoor kitchen sale runs about US$17,000 to US$18,000, and their biggest project to date topped US$140,000, according to Bloom, noting prices are about 30 percent higher in Canadian dollars.
“The outdoor kitchen category is still in its infancy,” he says, “but it’s really taking off in our area. It’s very exciting.”
The company has built outdoor kitchens in backyards, on balconies and rooftop gardens throughout Canada, most within two hours of Montreal. But according to Bloom, the company is capable of serving all of North America and has already created a number of outdoor kitchens for clients in Stowe, Vermont, upstate New York, and even one in the southern U.S.
Fifty percent of its outdoor kitchen business originates with architects, designers and builders. “These relationships are our biggest source of leads,” says Bloom. “Each architect or builder partner might bring in three to five projects a year.”
To help grow their outdoor kitchen business, Bloom and Marchant exhibit at high-end, designer-driven trade shows, where they also often conduct educational seminars. They have a robust database of architects and other specifiers, whom they reach through a blog, newsletter, and social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Houzz. According to Bloom, Houzz has been particularly effective at showcasing their outdoor kitchen projects.
“It was not our original intention for outdoor kitchens to be the main part of our business, but it has evolved that way,” says Bloom. “It started by someone asking us to build an outdoor kitchen island for the grill they bought from us, and we figured we would give it a shot. Then more and more people started asking and, before long, it became our main business segment.
“People have magnificent indoor kitchens and beautifully renovated indoor living spaces, but they have a rusty grill on the patio. There is a disconnect here. Why should the outdoor spaces not be given similar attention with a comparable high-quality design aesthetic?”
Again, it comes back to looking at things differently, according to Bloom. “A traditional retail setting where grills, accessories and outdoor kitchen components sit on the showroom floor, engages two senses – sight and touch,” he says. “But when they’re shown in the context of events and vignettes, we can inspire and engage the customer much more effectively using all five senses. Today’s consumer is exposed to so much information online, a good retailer needs to add value by engaging all the senses in a way the Internet can’t.”
Engaging customers through interactive retailing, and being nimble enough to correct a preconceived business path to better suit customers’ needs, has helped Urban Bonfire create a successful new retail model in the most unlikely of places.
Store Name: Urban Bonfire
Location: 3700 Rue Saint-Patrick, Montreal, Canada
Owners: Ryan Bloom and Stefan Marchant
Year Established: 2013
Web Site: www.urbanbonfire.com
Phone: (514) 932-8227
Number of Stores: 1
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: C$2-3M
Av. Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: Lynx, Sedona by Lynx, Saber, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, Wolf, Caliber, Memphis Wood Fire Grill, Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, Primo, Hestan, Grillson
Advertising % of Gross Revenues: Less than 1%
Advertising: Trade Shows, Social Media, Events, Content