Putting the ’Que in Québec
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Already, Max Lavoie has more than two decades of experience in the barbecue business, and he’s only 33. He got his start at age 12 assembling grills at Matériaux Lavoie, the hardware store his parents have owned for more than 40 years. He learned to grill and cook from his babysitter, whom he calls his second mother, and further honed his techniques conducting grilling demos at the store. His passion for the outdoor lifestyle was stoked in the ahead-of-its-time, tricked-out outdoor living area behind his childhood home.
“Growing up, we had this amazing outdoor space with five grills, a fire pit, a swimming pool and a 500 sq. ft. Outdoor Room covered with a translucent roof so you could see the sun, and could cook year-round no matter the weather,” he recalls. “My parents always entertained out there. We grilled, smoked fish, and had a lot of fun. As far back as I can remember, barbecuing and outdoor living were part of my life.”
Early on, his parents’ hardware store sold mainly entry-priced grills, moving only one or two units a year of their most expensive model, priced at $750. So when a young Lavoie asked his parents to carry a pricier Napoleon grill in the store, they said no because, at $1,000, they believed it wouldn’t sell. Frustrated, Lavoie switched to selling windows and roofing. But after realizing that “nobody is happy about buying roofing the way they enjoy buying a barbecue,” he gave the barbecue side of the business another try.
Soon after, while attending a hardware industry expo, he visited the Napoleon booth again, this time pleading his case to his mom. “She said, ‘Okay, let’s place an order and we won’t tell your father,’” he recalls. When his dad caught wind of it, he issued a stipulation: if the grills didn’t sell, Max would have to pay for them himself.
The entrepreneurial and persuasive Max managed to pre-sell all 10 units before they were even delivered to the sales floor. He proceeded to sell out the next order, and then the next. “My dad was happy because we were making more money on each grill,” says Lavoie, “and the premium grills were bringing in better customers, so the overall business was growing.”
Lavoie eventually expanded the barbecue department to 2,000 sq. ft., adding a wide variety of accessory products and increasing the selection of grills offered. Although the hardware store is located in a town with a population of only 15,000, it soon became a destination for barbecue products for grillers throughout the Province of Québec. “We were known as the barbecue experts,” Lavoie says, “and people began to seek us out for barbecuing and grilling advice.”
|The BBQ Québec department at Matériaux Lavoie store in Saint-Jean-Chrysostome. This is Max and JP’s parents’ store.|
He decided to leverage that expertise and, in 2012, partnered with his younger brother Jean-Philippe (JP), now 25, and friend Jérémie Champagne to create BBQ Québec, a barbecue business they first operated out of their parents’ store and online. The partners opened their first BBQ Québec spin-off brick-and-mortar store in Sainte-Foy, Québec, in 2014. One year later, they opened a second store, purposely choosing a location near the Ikea store in Boucherville, near Montréal. In 2016, they added a third store, opening in Laval on the north shore of Montréal.
Lavoie is now one of Canada’s top Napoleon dealers – the grills he originally fought hard to carry. He also carries Camp Chef, Blaze, Weber, Kamado Joe, Traeger, Fire Magic, Sunterra/BBQ Pit Boys, and other brands. In addition, the retailer stocks a huge number of accessories, sauces and spice rubs from Charcoal Companion, Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue, Weber, and other companies, carefully curating a selection of unique products that make the barbecue experience better, easier, more consistent, and more flavorful.
The partners have created a distribution company for many of these brands, as well as their own BBQ Québec branded products packaged in distinctive red and black with a bold flame graphic. Their line includes everything from grill lights, smoker boxes, marinade injectors and Himalayan salt plates, to natural lump charcoal and cooking wood pellets, both made from 100% Canadian sugar maple.
“We’re really proud of our BBQ Québec brand charcoal and pellets,” Lavoie says. “They perform really well.” The company will launch six new branded spice rubs and sauces in 2018, developed from the Lavoies’ proprietary blends. “Now we have the name recognition for BBQ Québec, so we’re looking to expand on it,” Lavoie says. “We have a lot of room to grow.”
The BBQ Québec empire grew exponentially this year thanks to a collaboration with Groupe BMR, a co-op of independent hardware stores in the region. Through the partnership, the Lavoies have opened “BBQ Québec Zones” at nearly 20 Groupe BMR stores. The display areas of these stores-within-a-store average between 500 and 1,000 sq. ft., and include a selection of 10 to 12 barbecue grills, as well as an eight-ft. wall of accessories, tools, solid fuels, and other products from the BBQ Québec line and other brands distributed by the company.
At 60 more Groupe BMR stores, the partners have created smaller-scale “BBQ Québec Destinations,” featuring four-ft. wall displays stocked with a selection of the best-selling grilling accessories, charcoal, and seasonings.
Lavoie says, “We are really into good-quality products, and are always on the lookout for opportunities to expand our brand and the products we distribute.” Their latest find is the All-in-One, a versatile accessory that transforms any kettle grill into a rotisserie, smoker, cold smoker, Argentinian-style grill, or pizza oven. The product was invented by one of their customers, a former golf instructor.
“We were so impressed that now we help him manufacture and distribute it, and we hired him as a BBQ Québec brand ambassador,” says Lavoie.
This is not the first time the brothers hired from within their inner circle to staff their field of 50 employees, most of whom are full-time and permanent. Max’s wife, Ariane Lefebvre, is the company CEO, while simultaneously pursuing an elite MBA program in entrepreneurship. Friend and co-owner Jérémie Champagne handles operations, deliveries, warranties, and other details, and JP’s best friend Sam is a store manager. Even little Noah-Samuel, Max and Ariane’s 22-month-old son, tags along on supplier visits, trade shows and other events, and is literally growing up in the business just like his dad.
|The Laval BBQ Québec Store.|
Their top salesperson at the Laval store started as a customer. The former tow-truck driver and barbecue hobbyist, “is a really cool guy and a friend now,” says Max. “He turned out to be an excellent salesperson. Customers love him and come from all over to work with him. Most of our employees were barbecue lovers before they started working here, so they are really knowledgeable and are doing what they are good at. We have a great, dedicated staff and really good employee retention.”
Lavoie attributes a good deal of their success to the fact that, while many retailers hire salespeople and then train them to be barbecuers, most BBQ Québec employees are barbecuers who are trained to be salespeople. As such, they can talk the talk with customers about recipes and techniques, including low-and-slow barbecuing and smoking, two of the hottest outdoor cooking trends in Canada right now, according to Lavoie.
“Charcoal is growing faster than any other trend in Canada,” he says. “We sold four times more charcoal grills this year than last year.” He says kamados – he carries Kamado Joe – have been “growing nonstop” in recent years, noting that the insulating ceramics are “very good for Québec climates.” He says the stores sell a lot of offset smokers, and kettle grills, upgraded with a host of accessories.
Sales of their Camp Chef pellet grills are growing, too, according to Lavoie, who adds they also do a big business in charcoal fuel, cooking wood chips and chunks, and cooking-wood pellets, particularly their own private-label brands. “We put a lot of emphasis on this category and expect it to grow exponentially,” he says.
As for the gas grills traditionally favored by Canadians, Lavoie says Canada is still very much cart country. Though Lavoie says BBQ Québec’s outdoor kitchen-related business is doubling every year, he notes it still represents a small segment of his sales. “We sell far and away more carts than built-ins,” he says. “We get a lot of snow and cold weather and people think an outdoor kitchen is too expensive when they can’t use it year ’round. There are a lot of people who cook year-round in Québec, but they want the grill to be accessible without having to shovel too far to get to it. With a cart grill you can move it closer to the house in winter. Outdoor kitchens are a market we don’t push very hard yet.”
Lavoie says gas grills priced around $1,500 up to $2,000, are in the “sweet spot” and sell best in their stores. “When it gets around $2,500 to $5,000, the customers start weighing how much they’re going to use it and whether it’s worth the expense,” he says. “The hardest part is teaching people the difference between the good-quality barbecues and the ones coming from China selling at Big Box stores for $299. People will say, ‘Why pay $1,500 for a barbecue when it’s so cold and snowy all winter.’ We tell them if you buy a good product with a good warranty, it will still be working well in 15 years and will save money in the long run. And if they learn how to use it, they will enjoy it year ’round. We put a lot of effort into teaching people about grilling and barbecuing, so they are happy and use it every day.”
A lot of that instruction takes place at the cooking classes they host several times a week at each of their three locations. BBQ 101 covers fundamental grilling techniques; BBQ 102 offers advanced instruction on smoking ribs, making beer-can chicken, searing steaks, and more; and other classes are dedicated to cooking with charcoal. Tuition is $75 and covers the class, as well as a delicious meal served in a party atmosphere afterward.
Taught by Max, JP, or other BBQ Québec staff members, the classes sell out every time, with attendees often buying spices, sauces, and accessory products that were featured in the session. “It’s like Disney World where you exit through the gift shop,” jokes Lavoie. “We don’t push or hard-sell anything, but people want it.”
BBQ Québec classrooms are often booked for private parties, corporate dinners and team-building events. And Max and JP host an annual, weekend-long barbecue camp for adults at a rustic resort lodge, where attendees bunk in log cabins, learn to use different grills and accessories, and cook and eat wonderful food. Menus have included whole hog, brisket, cold-smoked salmon, and omelets, all prepared over an open fire.
Previously, registration was capped at 20, but this year enrollment will be expanded to 50 guests, who pay $225, plus lodging expenses. “We don’t do this for the money,” says Lavoie. “It’s like our vacation; we love it. It’s a way to give back to our customers and the community of people who really love to barbecue. Our good customers always come; they are ambassadors for us. The weekend is a lot of fun.”
The BBQ Québec team also has fun at the extensive schedule of events it participates in each year, from beer fests to home shows. This year, the company teamed up with the Canadian Football League’s Montréal Alouettes to hold barbecue tailgate parties before every home game in Mont-Royal Park across from the stadium. Lavoie hosts the events and cooks for attendees, who pay $35 each. The tailgates are equal parts demo, cooking class, and party, with a rotating themed menu all prepared on the grill. They have helped boost crowds at the games, while also gaining exposure for the stores.
No matter the event, Lavoie says the BBQ Québec team always tries to showcase grills and smokers fueled by charcoal and wood, rather than gas. “It’s about the experience,” he says. “When you cook with fire, the taste is better and you create an experience and good memories. It’s more fun than pushing the button on a gas grill. That’s why we really believe in cooking with wood and charcoal.”
The philosophy permeates the frequent television appearances Lavoie makes on local morning shows, promoting grilling and barbecuing. In addition, he is co-producer and host of the French-language television series, “Oui Chef.” The 30-minute barbecue cooking shows, filmed in the Outdoor Room in his parents’ backyard, cover a wide range of techniques and feature recipes from Lavoie’s cookbook “BBQ au Max.” The first season, originally broadcast two years ago, now has a second life with thousands of views on YouTube.
The BBQ Québec team was the subject of a recent documentary that followed the young and passionate entrepreneurs at work, and during their barbecue classes and events. The documentary aired on Canada’s Z TV 10 times last year and was rebroadcast again this year, according to Lavoie. “People come to the store because of seeing it,” he says. “They see how hard we work and how much fun we have. I like to think we are starting a barbecue revolution.”
Through another connection at a local production company, BBQ Québec created a video featuring a seemingly disabled car on the side of the road with the hood up and engine smoking. Although many drivers passed by, those who stopped to offer assistance were shocked to see the smoke was generated by a barbecue grill mounted under the hood, cooking up sausages, burgers and other treats, and were rewarded with free BBQ Québec gear.
The video was posted online and subsequently went viral on social media, racking up more than 1.4 million views. It reached millions more viewers after it was run by local television news stations. “The fact that it went viral was perfect,” says Lavoie. “It was good marketing.”
Besides these innovative campaigns, both social media and traditional advertising play a role in BBQ Québec’s marketing mix. JP handles social media efforts, emphasizing Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. “We have a lot of content to share, including how-to videos and recipes, and we are slowly growing our followers and gaining new customers from it,” says Lavoie.
The company does “a fair amount of radio advertising and a little TV,” and next up, plans to launch an annual consumer magazine in spring of 2018 that will include a buyers’ guide, recipes, and stories of barbecue adventures.
|JP conducting an Outdoor BBQ Class.|
In what little spare time they have, the BBQ Québec team occasionally participates in barbecue competitions, even winning Best Side Dish for their barbecued smoked beans with pork, bacon and maple syrup, at the World Food Championship in Las Vegas last year. “We beat out lobster side dishes, and lots of other extravagant sides with our simple beans,” Lavoie says. “We want to get back to competing this year, and we’re even hoping to organize some competitions in Québec, if time permits.”
With so much going on, the brothers are seemingly in perpetual motion. Though Max is based in Montréal, and JP in Québec, the two frequently travel back and forth to help each other, and to do TV appearances and events. With movie-star good looks, high-energy personalities, and contagious enthusiasm, the brothers, along with Jérémie and Sam, look as much like a celebrity boy band as they do a band of barbecue entrepreneurs. They even wear rock-star microphone headsets when conducting classes and events.
“It’s actually a good comparison,” says Max. “We do a lot of classes, parties, and events, so it’s like we’re touring, and we’re constantly moving equipment, just like a band. The main similarity is that we have a lot of fun together. It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
His father, once a naysayer, is now a true believer in BBQ Québec and supportive of his sons’ endeavor. “My dad, who originally didn’t want to carry a $1,000 barbecue, is now calling me to say he just sold a $45,000 outdoor kitchen in his store,” says Lavoie with a laugh. “He appreciates the fact that we did it the hard way and figured out how to do it ourselves. Our parents are always there for us to help with a delivery, or help with an event, but they weren’t going to give us the business or hand us the money to open it. We had to be entrepreneurs and want this enough to really work for it and make it happen. We love what we do. It is a way of life, a lifestyle.”
Store Name: BBQ Québec
Location: Sainte-Foy, Québec
Owners: Max Lavoie, JP Lavoie, Jérémie Champagne
Year Established: 2012
Web Site: www.bbqquebec.com
Phone: (418) 914-1333
Number of Stores: 3 BBQ Québec retail stores, plus approximately 20 BBQ Québec Zones, and 60 BBQ Québec Destinations within Groupe BMR hardware stores.
Number of Employees: 50 in key season; 35-40 in offseason
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: BBQ Québec, Napoleon, Kamado Joe, Blaze, Fire Magic, Camp Chef, Weber, Sunterra/BBQ Pit Boys, Charcoal Companion, Steven Raichlen Best of Barbecue, Grill Daddy, Ribalizer, Grill Grate, Cookina, A‑Maze‑N Smoker, and more.