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Hearth & Home May 2014

The company’s Artisan Fire Pizza Oven has been a huge hit. Fueled by natural gas or propane, it can reach temperatures of 800 degrees, and can bake a pizza in less than three minutes.

We Won’t Compromise!

By Lisa Readie Mayer

At Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, the goal is to make the best possible products; what it costs doesn’t matter.

No compromises.

This, in a nutshell, is the philosophy at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. The makers of what is often called the best – and most expensive – line of grills on the planet have set the bar high.

L to R: Steve Adolph, president; Don Sivesind, vice president of Sales; Russ Faulk, vice president of Design and Marketing.

“We set out to make the most innovative, high-performing, aesthetically pleasing, handcrafted grills and outdoor kitchen products available, and pour our heart and soul into it,” says Steve Adolph, president of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. “Our goal is to make the best outdoor kitchen equipment in the world.”

Although the company has perfected its grill-making craft over the past 15 years, its roots run back to 1906 when the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Sheet Metal Company was founded. The sheet-metal fabricators made stainless-steel equipment for the dairy industry, perfecting the seamless welds necessary to keep bacteria at bay to ensure food safety.

When the local dairy industry began to decline in the 1990s, the great-grandson of the founder looked for a way to repurpose the employees’ welding skills in order to save the company. Discovering plans for a stainless-steel grill in his great-grandfather’s old files sparked an idea and The Kalamazoo Grill Company was born.

The company was eventually purchased and renamed Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet in 2005 by Pantelis “Pete” Georgiadis, the Chicago-based owner of the private investment and business-consulting firm, Synetro. Although a grill company was not exactly in the firm’s wheelhouse, Georgiadis was wowed by Kalamazoo grills, and believed this “passion business” would be worth taking on.

Today, production is still based in Kalamazoo, while sales and marketing efforts are out of Chicago. Straddling manufacturing and administrative teams is Russ Faulk, vice president Product Design & Marketing, who splits his week between the plant and the corporate offices. Faulk is responsible for all product ideas and design, approaching the task as part artist, part engineer, part chef.

With a degree in graphic design and experience as a business strategist while working for Georgiadis at Synetro, Faulk was tapped to play a significant role at the grill company.

“I’m completely unqualified for my job,” he says in jest. His own passion for outdoor cooking, which started at age 12 when he took over grilling duties for his family’s Sunday dinners, helps him not only in his product design capacity, but also in his additional roles as chief recipe-developer, photographer, blogger, newsletter writer, and grill master at the company.

The modern-day Renaissance man is the big-idea guy who conceives of the products, determines how they should perform, and envisions how they will look. He works closely with a team of engineers who interpret his vision and develop his designs into actual products.

“I try to start with a problem-solving approach and look at ways to make things better,” he says. “It’s a privilege to be charged with designing the best grill on the planet. I’m pretty picky and I have a discerning eye, which serves me well in this capacity.”

Durability is a key feature of any Kalamazoo product, e.g., this outdoor kitchen is in Hawaii, where it is exposed daily to saltwater breezes.

Pricey Perfection

Testament to his achievement is the Kalamazoo Hybrid Grill, a sturdy workhorse that offers the ability to cook over gas, charcoal or wood, either separately or simultaneously. The grill is engineered with an extra-deep firebox for even heat distribution and superior convection. Within the firebox are heavy-duty, 25,000 Btu cast-brass “Dragon Burners” (two, three or four burners, depending on the model), each weighing 14 pounds, as well as a rear infrared rotisserie burner.

When cooking with charcoal or wood, the unique Hybrid Fire Drawer slides out to load fuel, which is lit by the grill’s gas burners below. A hopper clean-out system funnels ashes down into a deep, stainless-steel bin for easy clean-up. Cooking temperatures on the grills, the majority of which are built into outdoor kitchens, range from 200 degrees for indirect grilling or smoking, to 1,000 degrees for direct grilling over a live fire.

The epitome of form and function, the grills have an “industrial chic” look with sleek, stainless-steel rod handles, and seamless, welded construction. Quarter-inch thick, heavy-duty, stainless-steel grilling grids have laser cutouts in patterns customized for meat, fish, vegetables and other foods.

A Kalamazoo craftsman welds the hood for a Hybrid Fire Grill. When he’s finished, the product will appear as if stamped from one piece of stainless steel.

About a dozen skilled craftspeople work on every grill as it goes through various manufacturing stations, and each one signs it along the way. (The company won’t disclose the total number of employees, but says the workforce has increased in recent years.)  

“This is a unique group of artisans who take real pride in their work,” says Faulk. “I can actually tell which welder worked on which grill by the appearance of their welds.” The process from order to backyard takes about four weeks.

The lineup also includes the gas-fired, countertop Artisan Fire Outdoor Pizza Oven, first introduced in 2010 and updated this year with more power and control and new exterior design features. It has two independently-controlled burners to separately heat the bottom and ceiling-mounted baking stones, and reaches 800-degree temperatures in 20 minutes. Other offerings include weather-tight, modular, outdoor kitchen cabinetry, powerful side burners, warming drawers, refrigerators, ventilation hoods and the first-ever outdoor-rated dishwasher.

The company’s newest offering is the Gaucho Grill, a heavy-gauge, charcoal-fueled unit, designed in the style of an Argentinian, or Santa Maria, grill. Temperatures can be adjusted by raising and lowering the grilling grid via a wheel and chain mechanism. This new grill, which evolved from Faulk’s love of cooking over wood, and a desire to better control the distance between fire and food, comes with a rotisserie, a gas burner to light the fuel, laser-cut cooking grids and an ash-removal system.

Gaucho grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

“I got excited about this type of cooking and wanted a way to do it better,” says Faulk, who adds the new product introduction is more about following his culinary interests than any restaurant trend.  

It turns out that grills made without compromises are quite expensive. Hybrid Grill prices range from $10,495 for the smallest two-burner, built-in model, to $21,195 for the largest four-burner unit on a cart base. The pizza oven runs $6,795.

“We didn’t set out as a strategy to make the world’s most expensive grills, it just worked out that way,” says Adolph. “We hand-build every product to order, and this type of customization does not lend itself to manufacturing efficiencies. Our grills are priced accordingly.”

For now, the company has no plans to offer a lower-priced line as other premium competitors have done.

“We haven’t figured out a way to deliver the experience we want in a lower-priced line,” Adolph says. “We haven’t been able to cut out features or downscale the design. We don’t want to compromise.”

A side effect of this stalwart adherence to mission is that Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s products are affordable by only the top One Percent – the wealthiest among us. Yet, the approach works. The company will not disclose sales figures, but does share that sales have risen 20 to 40 percent annually since 2010.

Several years ago, and based on customers’ desires, Kalamazoo discontinued producing gas-only grills, and created its Hybrid Fire Grills series, allowing customers to cook with any combination of gas, charcoal and wood.

Who’s Buying Kalamazoo Grills?

“Our customer is usually very passionate about outdoor cooking and loves the experience and flavor of grilling food,” says Don Sivesind, vice president, Sales. “Of course, some of our customers have chefs that cook for them, so they may not actually use the grill themselves, but most do.”

Adolph acknowledges that the company’s awareness level is still low even among their target audience. “When people know about us and can afford us, we convert them. Once we get into a neighborhood, we’ll often sell outdoor kitchens to five more neighbors.”

While it’s mostly the rich, and occasionally the famous, that buy Kalamazoo grills and outdoor kitchens, not every customer is super-wealthy. Adolph relates a story of a bakery truck driver, an avid grilling enthusiast who wanted to buy a Kalamazoo grill to cook the meal for his daughter’s wedding.

“He saved a bit of each paycheck for years to be able to afford it,” recalls Adolph. “When he came to the plant to pick it up so he could save on shipping costs, there was not a dry eye in the factory. This was a huge splurge for him, but it’s not really any different from a guy who makes less than $100,000 a year, but buys an $80,000 Porsche because he has a passion for sports cars and wants the best.”

The company’s sales growth is due in part to an expanding dealer base. About three to five new dealers are added each year on average, for a total of about 32 dealers nationwide today, according to Sivesind.

“It’s a very exclusive network,” he says.

Sivesind says the company’s biggest markets include New York, Connecticut, California, Michigan (where the outdoor kitchens are often bought for second homes) and the Chicago area. While the company does sell in the hearth and barbecue channel, business is primarily centered among landscape architects, indoor kitchen designers, and high-end kitchen and bath dealers.

“If a dealer is already selling $16,000 refrigerators and Gaggenau ranges, they will be successful selling our products,” he says. “They become a one-stop shop for both indoor and outdoor premium appliances.”

According to Sivesind, Kalamazoo’s price points are a “critical decision factor” for prospective dealers.

“Dealers have to consider whether they have the clientele to support (these price points), and whether they can make the investment in display models,” he says. “If they are used to selling the highest end of the market and are already engaging the premium customer, it will be a better fit.”

Each grill at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet is built by hand only after the company receives an order for one. The team that makes the grill signs the grill, ensuring high-quality work and pride in a job well done.

The latest addition to its dealer base is Pirch in Oakbrook, Illinois. This is the fifth location, and the first outside California, for the appliance experiential showroom formerly known as Fixtures Living. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet will share floor space with Lynx, DCS, Fire Magic, Wolf and other premium grill brands.

Long-time Kalamazoo dealer Albano Appliance in Pound Ridge, Connecticut, services the tony New York-Connecticut metro area. Although, according to owner Fred Albano, his company carries everything from Hot Point (an entry-level appliance brand) to handmade French stoves, they focus on the high end of the market, with extensive indoor and outdoor displays, top-notch service and an on-staff chef for in-store cooking classes and demos.

“Kalamazoo is one of the best out there,” Albano says. “The opportunity to cook with charcoal or wood is a fantastic option. Features like the gutter system to drain rainwater mean there’s very little maintenance involved. There is simplicity in the design, but the engineering on the grills and outdoor cabinetry is brilliant, and everything is built to very high standards. You can appreciate the workmanship.”

Albano, a self-described “appliance nerd,” also praises the company’s technical support.

“They are easy-breezy to work with,” he says. “Not many companies allow you to call the president with a question or an issue. That’s pretty unheard of in this business.”

Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s practice of providing 24/7 phone access to its executive team goes beyond its dealers. Every individual customer gets Russ Faulk’s cell number when buying a grill.

“And they use it,” says Adolph. “People regularly call asking about a grilling technique or, increasingly, about making pizza on the grill. Russ fields all those calls. He’s like the Butterball Turkey Hotline. How awesome for people to be able to talk directly to the guy who designed the grill, and who also happens to be a grill master.

“I always tell people, once we sell you a grill it’s just the beginning of our relationship,” Adolph adds. “It’s really important to have that experience extend beyond the sales process. Considering we have lifetime warranties and the fact that many people buy a complete outdoor kitchen’s worth of our products at once, it’s not like we have a shot at selling them too much more down the road.

“We build these relationships because it’s fun to connect with people. People send us pictures and recipes and stories, and we love that kind of feedback. We want to give customers that experience because it’s in our DNA. You can’t fake that kind of passion.”

No compromise there.

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