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Model LG 900 from Louisiana Grills.

Room on the Patio

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Pellet grills are taking off; now’s the time to jump on that bandwagon and enjoy the ride.

Pellet grills are taking off; now’s the time to jump on that bandwagon and enjoy the ride.

Want evidence that the pellet grill category is hot? According to Jason Baker of Green Mountain Grills, more than 50 percent of the dealers who visited the company’s booth at the recent HPBExpo in Nashville were brand new to pellet grills and wanted to start carrying them. Another 25 percent were interested in adding to their pellet grill lines.

“This reassures me the category is really growing,” Baker says. In fact, he anticipates Green Mountain Grills will see at least 35- to 40-percent year-over-year growth in 2015, and the company is staffing-up to meet the demand.

Kent Millecam, vice president Sales for Camp Chef, calls pellet grills, “the highlight of our business.” The company saw its pellet grill sales grow between 30 and 40 percent last year, and added two new models this year, including one that captured a Vesta Award for its innovative pellet-hopper and clean-out systems. Its line-up now offers cookers with price ranges and feature sets targeted to everyone from a novice user to a pellet pro wanting to upgrade.

Oregon-based pellet grill manufacturer MAK Grills is “on track for an awesome year,” according to Bruce Bjorkman. “We’ve been breaking our sales records every month, even in January and February.”

Memphis Elite Grill by Memphis Wood Fire Grills.

The New “It” Grill?

Are pellet grills the new kamados? Pellet grill manufacturers certainly hope so. Baker estimates the category is at least five years behind kamados, but says it’s definitely following the same trajectory and it’s now on consumers’ radar.

Millecam points out that pellet grill sales are strongest in the West, “probably because of where they started out,” he says. “East of the Mississippi, kamados are still way ahead, and that’s partly a reflection of where kamados were first introduced in the U.S. But pellet grills are definitely starting to catch on in the East.”

Like kamados, pellet grills offer specialty dealers a way to differentiate themselves from mass merchants. “Retailers are recognizing that if they want to survive and thrive, they had better be selling something different from the Box stores,” says Bjorkman.

While Traeger Wood Pellet Grills successfully sells in multiple channels, including specialty stores, some Costco stores, and online, and Rec Tec Grills sells only direct-to-consumers online, in general, the category is still firmly in the specialty realm.

Most experts say the category benefits from the education-based selling that only specialty dealers can provide. “In my opinion, the pellet category belongs in the specialty channel,” Baker says. “People need help learning how to use these grills. Otherwise, I think a lot of them might get frustrated, give up and return the product.”

Though the pellet grill category is still relatively young, Bjorkman says it has matured enough that there is a market for high-end pellet grills today. “Dealers say they have customers willing to pay for quality,” he says. Premium and pricey, with state-of-the-art digital and wi-fi-enabled controls, MAK pellet cookers were one of the first high-end pellet grill brands in the marketplace.

Memphis Wood Fire Grills also makes premium high-performance pellet grills. A combination of brains and beauty, their proprietary cooking technology automatically adjusts everything from fuel-to-air ratio to cooking temperatures for consistent results, and the polished, stainless-steel design is right at home built into a high-end outdoor kitchen.

PG36LUX by Camp Chef.

The latest to enter the premium space is the new Boneless Grill, a pellet cooker manufactured in Spain. Currently available in two models, the grills feature 316 marine-grade stainless steel for superior corrosion resistance, and a high-tech, remote control system to program the grills.

Pellets Belong on a Fully Appointed Patio

“I go to a lot of folks’ homes and it’s not unusual to see two or even three types of grills on their patios – a built-in gas grill, a charcoal kamado and a pellet grill,” says Baker. This phenomenon reveals consumers are beginning to grasp that, just as different indoor cooking appliances are used for specific techniques or distinct flavor profiles, the same is true for outdoor appliances. The amount of time a consumer has and the type of technique or flavor profile they are trying to achieve, determines whether they choose to cook on a gas grill, wood pellet grill, charcoal kamado or infrared searing station.

“There is room on the patio for all of them,” says Baker.

With this trend in mind, manufacturer Louisiana Grills introduced a line of charcoal kamados this year to complement its pellet grills. “We now have the number-one and number-two categories in the industry,” says Dan Watson, director of Sales. “There is a synergy between the two.”

Manufacturers and dealers say pellet grills are an easy way to introduce consumers to cooking with solid fuels. Pellet grills are fully automated, with set-it-and-forget-it programmable smoke levels, cook times and temperatures, so even a novice can produce consistent results. Though they are often thought of as low-and-slow smokers, most current-generation pellet grills now incorporate technology or other design features to help them reach high-heat searing temperatures, making them much more versatile.

Senator from Boneless Grills.

The new Boneless Grill, for instance, features an innovative way to boost cooking temperatures by incorporating volcanic stones in the grill base. The stones hold and radiate heat and can be positioned at different heights to accomplish indirect cooking, high-heat grilling, or cooking directly on the stones’ surface.

Competition

Pellet grills are benefitting from exposure on barbecue-related television shows and on the competition circuit, where a growing number of teams are winning big with pellet cookers such as Yoder Smokers, Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack and MAK Grills. Last year’s introduction of the Myron Mixon Pitmaster Q3 pellet cooker, named after barbecue cook-off champion and television celebrity Myron Mixon, has further elevated awareness.

Davy Crockett with Wi-Fi from Green Mountain Grills.

Camp Chef’s sponsorship of a cooking show on the Sportsman Channel, in which the host cooks on a Camp Chef pellet grill, aims to grow interest in the category outside traditional grilling and barbecuing circles.

Excitement like this has not gone unnoticed by manufacturers, and the pellet grill field continues to grow as more competitors enter the fray. But according to Baker, “Competition – even at the Big Box stores – is a good thing and has helped to build awareness of the category.”

Baker says that although there is fierce competition among pellet grill companies, there is also really great camaraderie as well. “We all admire what others are doing; there’s room for all of us to grow,” he says.

TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

MAK 4 star general pellet grill

  MAK 4-Star General.

New pellet grill manufacturer Boneless Grills stunned the crowds at the HPBExpo with its Senator pellet grill. It wasn't the over-sized, divided cooking area fueled by two separate pellet systems capable of simultaneously cooking with different wood flavors, temperatures and smoke levels that left mouths agape. It wasn't the top-quality workmanship, or the 316-marine-grade, stainless-steel materials, or even the high-tech, Wi-Fi-programmable digital controls. It was sticker shock over the cooker's $11,000 price tag.

That a pellet grill could command such a price is amazing, considering the category; though around for nearly three decades, it is now just coming into its own.

Boneless Grills is not the first – and surely won't be the last – to introduce a big-ticket pellet grill. Memphis Wood Fire Grills' beautiful, professional-quality, stainless-steel pellet cookers are priced comparably to very high-end gas grills. “We are the ‘Bentleys' of the category,” says Bob Borgerding of manufacturer Hearthland Products. “We are a premium grill that just happens to burn pellets.” MAK Grills' Vesta Award-winning 4-Star General, with 6,000 sq. in. of cooking space, temperature ranges between 175 and 650 degrees, and Wi-Fi-capable operation, sports an $8,000 price tag for built-in models; $11,000 for cart-based units.

“The 4-Star General is a limited production model, but there is definitely a market for it,” says Bruce Bjorkman, director of Sales and Marketing at MAK Grills. In fact, one customer recently ordered two of them as gifts for his sons. With more than 30 manufacturers now making pellet grills, the category has evolved from niche player with mostly entry-level products, to one that offers grills at every price point, including premium. Big-ticket pellet grills are great options for “pelletheads” ready to upgrade, and for discriminating buyers who want fully appointed outdoor kitchens.

 


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