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Hearth & Home September 2015

Charcoal is HOT — and Cool

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Sales of charcoal grills continue to increase, particularly at the higher end of the market.

We’ve heard rumors that charcoal grilling has been making a comeback. Now there’s proof: According to the latest Weber GrillWatch Survey, 56 percent of grill owners own a charcoal grill today, closing the gap on gas grills, with 59 percent ownership. Charcoal grill ownership is up 10 percentage points since 2012, when the Weber survey showed 46 percent of households owned a charcoal grill.

Original Kettle Series by Weber.

Another interesting statistic: According to the study, in the past five years, the number of people who say they use a charcoal grill most often has jumped by 10 percentage points, from 34 percent to 44 percent. During the same period, the percentage of people who say they use a gas grill most often has decreased 10 percentage points, from 59 percent to 49 percent.

Crazy for Coals

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the increase in consumer interest in charcoal grilling first compelled manufacturers to step-up charcoal grill offerings in earnest. But, clearly, the introduction of upgraded charcoal grills opened the category to a much broader target audience and boosted interest and sales even more. Today the improved market potential for charcoal appliances has inspired many premium manufacturers to get into the game, and consumers are responding.

Lift-Off Charcoal Starter and 100 percent Lump Mesquite Charcoal by Bull Outdoor Products.

As evidence, according to Kim Lefko, executive vice president, Marketing, for Weber, “recently, there has been significant growth in sales of charcoal grills over $500.”

Charcoal grilling is evolving from something once considered a low-quality, low-priced option for entry-level weekend warriors. Today, it’s undergoing repositioning as a premium, authentic, all-natural, artisanal cooking method. It is respected and acknowledged as the secret to success for both pitmaster pros and cutting-edge backyard grillers. In other words, charcoal is cool. Here’s why.

It’s a Throwback

Charcoal grilling dovetails perfectly with Americans’ renewed interest in simple, natural, artisanal foods and cooking methods. It’s hard to get more back-to-basics than grilling over a live fire with its aromas, flavors and rituals evoking memories of simpler times.

Charcoal Companion V Smoker by
The Companion Group.

Throwback grills, like the low-tech, heavy-duty, cast-aluminum Portable Kitchen, first introduced in 1952, are hot – and hip – again. All-natural lump charcoal is catching on as a natural alternative to traditional charcoal briquets laden with chemicals and additives. In addition, a host of chemical-free alternatives are available to light charcoal quickly and easily, including chimney lighters, high-heat blowers, paraffin-coated sawdust cubes, electric starters and more, doing away with the need for petroleum-based lighter fluid and instant-lighting briquets.

Retailers report that customers are increasingly experimenting with wood chips and chunks as natural flavor enhancers, requesting advice on which woods go best with certain foods, much like they would discuss food and wine pairings or craft beers.

The takeaway: To boost sales of grills, fuel and alternative lighting products, retailers should position and promote charcoal grilling as an all-natural and artisanal way to cook, and educate customers on lighting and regulating a charcoal fire. As customers see the ease and convenience of cooking over charcoal, they’ll be less intimidated by the process, have better results, and be inspired to do it more often. The more they cook over charcoal, the more grills, fuel and accessories you’ll sell.

American Muscle Grill, a dual-fuel grill by Summerset Grills.

Grillers Are No Longer Monogamous

Rather than a one-grill-cooks-all philosophy, consumers are beginning to accept the notion that, just like with indoor appliances, there are specific appliances for different outdoor cooking techniques. In fact, the most recent Weber GrillWatch study shows 33 percent of households now own multiple grills, most commonly gas and charcoal.

According to retailers, the impetus to buy that second grill sometimes starts with experimenting on a dual-fuel grill, a gas grill that offers the option of inserting a tray over the gas burner to hold a charcoal or wood fire. As people try charcoal grilling and like it, it often leads to the purchase of a dedicated charcoal appliance.

One of the newest dual-fuel options is the American Muscle Grill, designed and built in the U.S. by Summerset Professional Grills. Jeff Straubel expects the grill’s detailing, evoking the look of a muscle car, will open doors to “macho” backyard chefs looking for the option to grill or smoke over charcoal or wood, as well as gas.

Another takeaway for retailers: Encourage gas grill customers to add a dual-fuel charcoal tray option whenever possible. Piquing an interest in the flavors and techniques of charcoal grilling and smoking might just lead to the sale of a dedicated charcoal grill or smoker, not to mention ongoing sales of fuel.

Above: Kamado Joes for sale in the Kamado Grille retail store. Left: Kamado Grille in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Kamado Effect

Increasingly, the type of charcoal grill owned in a multiple-grill household is a kamado. In fact, many credit kamados, which enjoy an unrivaled consumer following, as a key reason behind the surge in charcoal grilling.

“It’s the number one category in the barbecue industry,” says Dan Watson, director of sales for Dansons, makers of Louisiana charcoal-fueled ceramic kamado grills.

Word-of-mouth marketing, frequent retail demonstrations and online consumer forums promote kamados on the grassroots level, and have helped to increase awareness and sales of the charcoal cookers. Also helping to fan the flames: exposure to kamados in a growing number of restaurants.

The Il Fumatore charcoal grill and smoker by Vin de Flame.

While most of these establishments use one or two kamados in the kitchen to prepare a signature dish or two, the new Kamado Grille in Raleigh, North Carolina, takes it to the next level. Opened this past spring, the restaurant is billed as the first in the world to cook exclusively on kamado grills, specifically Kamado Joes. There are 12 Kamado Joe grills in the kitchen to cook entrees, and three more in the dining room to prepare appetizers and desserts in full view of the customers.

According to Kamado Grille marketing manager Brooks Briz, “We wanted to take the concept of the backyard cookout indoors.” The dining room’s décor, complete with live trees, water features, stone, natural woods, and wicker patio furniture, helps to convey the outdoor feel, as do the bocce court, cornhole boards, and ping pong tables in front of the restaurant.

Customers who want to replicate their meal can purchase their own Kamado Joe cooker from the restaurant’s retail store. According to Briz, many do. “Seeing the kamados in action and tasting the food has led to a lot of grill sales,” he says. Every Saturday morning, the restaurant hosts classes to teach new and prospective kamado owners – anywhere from 25 to 50 people a week – how to use the cookers. “We want to encourage this lifestyle,” Briz says.

More Options Boost Sales

Raptor Grill.

In addition to kamados, there are many quality charcoal grills for specialty retailers to offer upscale customers today. Most premium grill manufacturers have introduced high-performing, stainless-steel charcoal units designed to resemble gas grills. With built-in models now available, more consumers are incorporating them alongside gas grills in outdoor kitchens.

Not all upscale charcoal grills look like gas grills, however. The Il Fumatore charcoal grill and smoker by Vin de Flame is housed in a beautiful, reclaimed, white oak wine barrel. Steel Mountain Grills are made from heavy-duty, 11-gauge, black powder-coated steel, and embossed with raised, black, red or orange flames on the front doors of the grillbox and firebox.

The Gateway Drum Smoker.

On the portable front, the new Raptor Grill is designed to be highly fuel-efficient – its patent-pending design is able to preserve and reuse much of the charcoal left after a cookout. It is easy to use, quick to cool down, and simple to clean, and at $80, is an affordable option for a quality on-the-go grill.

At the opposite end of the spectrum at $17,695 for a built-in unit or $19,195 with the cart base, is the Gaucho Grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. The Argentinian-style, ultra-premium, stainless-steel grill has a 30-in. spoked wheel that raises or lowers the cooking grid to the desired proximity to the charcoal or wood fire.

As quality and price points have risen, so too have margins, leading more specialty dealers to consider charcoal grills worthy of the floor space.

Smoke is Smokin’

Gaucho Grill by Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

Interest in smoking is – well, smokin’ – and a major factor contributing to growth in charcoal grill sales. Television programs such as “Primal Grill,” “BBQ Pitmasters,” “Man Fire Food,” and “Bobby Flay’s Barbecue Addiction,” romanticize cooking over a live fire, and their hosts have celebrity status.

Pitmaster wannabes “want competition results in their backyard,” says Tim Scheer, owner of Gateway Drum Smokers, and a competition barbecuer himself. His new charcoal-fueled cookers resemble 50-gallon drums – but in fun, glossy colors – and cook using a combination of radiant and convection heat within the sealed drum to deliver consistent, moist and flavorful barbecue, faster than a typical smoker.

“It’s so easy for the backyard barbecuer to use,” Scheer says. “You don’t have to stay up all night tending the smoker to get competition results.”

The Smokenator.

Accessory products that replicate smoking on a basic gas or charcoal grill can help achieve similar results, and may also lead to sales of smoker grills. Stephanie Thompson, president of The Smokenator, says her after-market accessory that converts a standard charcoal kettle grill into a smoker, “Is a great way for people to give smoking a try without making a big investment. It has good results and is easy to use.” She says the patented Smokenator helps people make the most of their charcoal kettle and use it more often, “or, it can be a good interim smoker until someone is ready to buy a separate smoker grill.”

The fact that there was a standing-room-only crowd at the seminar on “How to Smoke Like a Pro” at the most recent HPBExpo in Nashville, is further evidence of the growing importance of charcoal grills and smokers to the barbecue retail mix. Many of the retailers in attendance said they were there to learn more about low-and-slow charcoal barbecuing and smoking because their customers were very interested in the techniques.

Consumers’ newfound appetite for the more complex flavor profiles of charcoal grilling and low-and-slow smoking, supported by a wide variety of quality products, mean charcoal grills and smokers should only gain momentum.


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