By Lisa Readie Mayer
That’s the secret ingredient in some of the best restaurant kitchens? At Atlanta-based Rathbun’s Steak, named one of the best steakhouses in the U.S., it’s the Big Green Egg. Chef and co-owner Kevin Rathbun is a fan of the kamado-style ceramic cooker and uses it to prepare some of his signature dishes, including “Big Green Egg Smoked Coca Cola Baby Back Ribs,” which the menu actually identifies as being cooked on the EGG.
Turns out he’s in good company. According to Ardy Arani, CEO of Big Green Egg, the EGG is a sought-after appliance by top chefs in hundreds of restaurants around the world – a number of them, two- and three-star Michelin-rated. In fact, Noma, in Coppenhagen, crowned the world’s best restaurant for three years before finally slipping to second place in 2013, has four EGGs in constant use for grilling and smoking just outside the kitchen door.
“We have a huge representation in the culinary arena, particularly in Europe where our distributors have actively cultivated relationships with chefs,” says Arani. The cookers have received food safety certification in Europe, and the company has developed a culinary partner kit that, among other things, supplies Big Green Egg logos for menus, and stickers for the front door.
|Chef Martin Rotteveel, at the Restaurant Bij Teus in Holland, cooking with Big Green Eggs.|
“In the U.S., Big Green Egg caught on first with consumers through a grassroots movement and is now finding a home in restaurants. But in Europe, we consciously focused on restaurants first, and that has led to acceptance by consumers.”
While chefs at Noma use Large EGGs in an outdoor courtyard, Arani says most restaurants use the company’s smallest Mini units placed on stainless-steel counters beneath venting hoods right in the kitchen. Based on feedback from chefs, the company just introduced the MiniMax, a compact, tabletop unit designed with a larger cooking surface (132 sq. in. vs. 79 sq. in. on a Mini), but the same height as the Mini.
Another grill company that has successfully entered the restaurant and hospitality marketplace is Canadian-based Crown Verity. Although it sells to residential customers, the manufacturer has carved a niche providing premium-quality, heavy-duty, commercial gas and charcoal grills to the foodservice industry for over 23 years. Made of 100-percent 304-stainless steel, the grills are available in a variety of sizes that can be built into an island base, on a cart, or as part of a mobile tailgate trailer.
Since 1987, La Caja China, a “magic box” that roasts whole pigs, fish, turkeys or other whole animals in the style of traditional pit cooking, has been sold into more than 75,000 hotels, resorts, wineries, catering businesses and other commercial locations.
The unique cooker features an exterior box made of metal or wood, an interior aluminum box that holds the meat, and an aluminum lid that seals the box and supports a bed of charcoal on top. As food roasts inside the box, drippings are caught, creating a moist environment, and tender, juicy and flavorful meat without the hassle or mess of pit-roasting or spit-roasting.
|Chefs cook on an EVO at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.|
Bob Shingler, president of EVO, realized shortly after launching his innovative, round, plancha-style, flattop grills 13 years ago, that there was tremendous potential in the commercial sector. Today, hotels, resorts, restaurants, golf club residences, country clubs and caterers represent just over half of his business, and he counts such big names as Sheraton, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Ritz Carlton and Disney among his clients.
“We work closely with chefs at properties all over the country,” he says.
But unlike other grills typically used behind the scenes in the kitchen, EVO grills are used in the front of the house for “live action” cooking displays.
“Cooking on an EVO in front of a dining audience is like theater or a show and connects people socially to the food,” says Shingler. “People like that they can see the food preparation. It ties into the farm-to-table concept where people want to shop locally, and know where their food is coming from and how it’s made.”
|Fajitas being made on an EVO at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.|
Opportunities for outdoor living products in the hospitality industry go well beyond grills in restaurants, however. Of course, the casual furniture industry has always successfully marketed to this sector, but now grills, outdoor appliances, islands, firepits, fire tables, patio heaters and other Outdoor Room products are finding their way into restaurants, bars, resorts, hotels, country clubs, food trucks, catering outfits, theme parks, condominium buildings and even college dormitory complexes.
Danver is seeing more rooftop installations of its stainless-steel outdoor kitchen cabinetry, particularly its new urban-chic Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchen line that features painted finishes over stainless steel. Company owner Mitch Slater says the modular outdoor kitchens are being installed in the rooftop common areas of condo, co-op and apartment buildings in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and Miami.
“On rooftops, weight is an issue,” Slater says. “Our island cabinets are a lightweight option compared to rock islands, and people like the sleek, sophisticated design.”
The company recently sold outdoor kitchens into three active adult communities in Maryland, where they are incorporated into common-area pavilions outside the club house.
“This is a big market and one we are actively pursuing,” Slater says.
DCS by Fisher & Paykel, the manufacturer of premium grills and outdoor kitchen components, is currently working with chefs such as Rob Wilson of the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California, to explore the potential in the resort industry for the company’s Liberty modular kitchen line.
“Resorts like this serve 200 to 400 people a day poolside,” says Gina Lathrum, brand marketing manager for DCS. “This is a huge industry and a major potential opportunity, and we are learning what we need to do to tap into it. We are listening to chefs and hospitality professionals to see what they need and how they might use our products.”
“We do a lot of work with restaurants and hotels on our fire tables,” says Ross Johnson, Sales and Marketing manager of The Outdoor GreatRoom Company. “We’re selling to Marriott and other chains, as well as independent hotels and restaurants. These places promote that they offer live fire features in their outdoor cocktail areas and it’s becoming a big draw for them.”
Johnson says the company’s new L-shaped fire table was designed to complement the modular, sectional outdoor furniture that is popular in hospitality settings.
Firetainment Fire Tables has also developed programs for the commercial market. According to CEO Shawn Clark, the company just recently sold 10 of its Made-in-the-USA, granite-topped fire tables to an upscale resort in Florida, where they are on the beach for guests to enjoy in the evenings. With outdoor gas appliance certification in place, the company has plans to expand its efforts in the hospitality channel.
|Mike Feygin at his Bourbon BBQ Restaurant in Wyckoff, New Jersey.|
From Resort to Residence
Exposure to outdoor cooking and living products in commercial settings can often lead to consumer sales at the retail level.
“People know Michelin-star chefs must have a level of confidence with a product to bring it into their kitchens. So when the chefs use the Big Green Egg, it’s a huge endorsement,” Arani says. “Many of the restaurants have open kitchens, so consumers can see the product and it builds awareness. Our culinary program has been a huge part of making consumers familiar with the flavor profile of food cooked on the Big Green Egg. Chefs are very influential, so this association helps to open markets and grow consumer sales.”
It doesn’t always work that way, though, according to Shingler. Although he occasionally gets calls from consumers who want to buy an EVO grill after experiencing it at a resort or hotel, he says those calls are few and far between.
“We would need to have some type of point-of-sale system in the commercial setting to generate more residential sales, but it’s not the hotel’s business to promote our brand,” he says. “It’s difficult for consumers to make the connection on their own and it’s not a strategy we’re pursuing.”
At Bourbon BBQ, in Wyckoff, New Jersey, the connection between the food on the plate and the grill in the kitchen is much closer and definitely a sales generator. Since 2006, the restaurant, named Best Barbecue Restaurant in New Jersey by 201 Magazine, has exclusively used a Cookshack 750 pellet smoker to turn out barbecue specialties such as ribs and brisket.
As more and more of the restaurant’s customers started asking how they could replicate the wood-smoke flavor at home, owner Mike Feygin began selling pellet grills directly out of the restaurant, using the waiting area and parts of the dining room as a showroom. Today, the restaurant-retail operation – which is also “Certified Green” by the Green Restaurant Association – is a top pellet grill dealer in the Northeast.
Feygin sells Green Mountain Grills, Cookshack, Traeger, Louisiana and Black Olive pellet kamado cookers, in addition to cooking wood pellets, and their own branded rubs and sauces.
“When customers love the taste of our wood-smoked food, it often leads to the sale of a grill,” he says. “It’s like doing a demo every day for 100 people.” He can lead an interested customer to a nearby grill on display to point out the features and explain the benefits. “Who better to explain how to cook on a pellet grill than someone who uses it every day?” he says. “We practice what we preach. Our passion shows and it’s a good sales tool.”
|Key Largo firepit from Outdoor GreatRoom.|
Certification by independent, product-safety certification companies, such as UL, ETL and CSA, that test products for compliance with safety standards, is the biggest obstacle to breaking into the commercial market, according to those doing business in that arena. According to Johnson, The Outdoor GreatRoom Company went through “considerable effort and expense” to have its firepits, fire tables and other outdoor fire features UL certified and listed, a necessity for doing business in commercial settings.
Shingler says the process is even more difficult for grills, which must also be NSF certified that they meet the standards and protocols for sanitary food service equipment and are safe to use in restaurant and commercial settings.
“The manufacturer must ship the product to the NSF lab for testing and the process can take 30 to 45 days, or longer if the lab finds things in the design that need to be changed,” says Shingler. “It cost us around $10,000 for NSF certification in our class of equipment, but that amount could vary depending on what you’re testing.”
He cautions that it can be difficult to transition a residential grill to the commercial marketplace.
“It really starts with the design and construction, which are completely different for a commercial grill,” he says. “It should be designed to NSF standards from the beginning, so it won’t harbor food and bacteria.”
According to Russ Faulk, vice president Product Design and Marketing for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, the quality of pricy, premium Kalamazoo grills meets the mark for commercial use, but the company has decided not to pursue the certification process.
“There is a commercial market for grills, but after exploring it a bit, we don’t see many restaurants, hotels or condos willing to pay this kind of money for one of our grills or outdoor kitchens. We have decided not to chase the commercial market right now.”
The Cookshack pellet smokers Feygin uses are NSF approved and ETL listed, but he also has had to contend with a host of municipal regulations and inspections. When Feygin was forced to rebuild the restaurant kitchen after a fire started due to creosote buildup near the venting pipe in the roof (not from any issue with the smoker itself, he insists), he had hoped to avoid a recurrence by placing the cooker outside. When local regulations prohibited that, Feygin was able to configure the kitchen layout so the pellet cooker opened to the inside of the restaurant, but the venting remained outside and did not have to go through the building.
He also had to contend with visits from the EPA to test the smoke emissions in the exhaust. (“It was clean, and passed with flying colors,” he says.) “There are a lot of local regulations to work around when you’re dealing with a commercial kitchen, and they are different in each community,” Feygin says. “If you are going to sell in this environment, you must be aware of them.”
According to Johnson, some of The Outdoor GreatRoom Company’s commercial sales are handled on the corporate level, and the manufacturer attends shows such as the Hospitality and Design Expo to connect with buyers in this channel and the designers who serve them. But Johnson adds that the company’s dealers often sell the fire tables to independent restaurants, bars, golf courses and other venues in their local territories.
“Dealers should be exploring this avenue,” he says. “Even when our company breaks into a national, commercial account, we still use our local dealers to install and service.”
In fact, experts suggest pitching service contracts to local hospitality establishments, offering regular refilling of propane tanks, and cleaning and maintenance of outdoor fire features and community grills as a way to boost business.
With the right products and targeted marketing, the hospitality channel can present opportunities for growth for both manufacturers and retailers of outdoor cooking and living products beyond residential backyards.