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Hearth & Home May 2014

Myron Mixon with the Q3 Pitmaster.

The Tipping Point?

By Lisa Readie Mayer

With manufacturers now numbering over two dozen, and great publicity coming from TV shows, the pellet grill category may be ready for takeoff.

In the 1970s, a television commercial for a financial brokerage firm used the tagline, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.” Today, some in the barbecue industry are asking, “When Myron Mixon talks about pellet grills, will people listen?”

Mixon, a judge with a booming voice and big personality on the wildly popular television show “BBQ Pitmasters,” has just lent his name to the Myron Mixon Q3 Pitmaster, a line of pellet grills that will be sold primarily in mass retail chains. The cornerstone of the line is a bright red pellet cooker, designed to look like a gas grill, that’s priced starting at $499, significantly less than most other pellet grills in the marketplace.

Mixon helped to design this grill, as well as the line’s higher-priced, barrel-shaped pellet smoker earmarked for the specialty channel, in a licensing arrangement with MoJack, a lawn and garden products manufacturer with extensive distribution in major retailers throughout North America, Europe and Australia.

To date, the company has lined up Sears, K-Mart and other mass retailers to carry the line, which will be supported with point-of-sale materials and 170 national television commercial spots.  

“People are becoming more aware of pellet grills because they have seen teams use them on ‘BBQ Pitmasters,’” explains Dan Drake, chairman of MoJack, who conceived of the line after becoming a fan of both the BBQ Pitmasters show and pellet cooking, upon receiving a pellet grill as a Father’s Day gift.

“A pellet grill is so easy, automatic and convenient that anyone can recreate competition-style barbecue at home,” he says. “Previously, price point and distribution have been issues holding this category back. We hope to open a whole new level of consumer for pellet grills.”

While some worry the attention will push the category further into the mass-market realm and away from independent dealers, others in the industry are hoping Mixon’s high-profile endorsement will help propel pellet grills to their rightful place on the patio.

Today, that section of the patio might still be small – by one estimation total pellet grill annual sales range between 150,000 and 250,000 units – but it seems to be getting bigger. Hearth & Home’s last Barbecue Mid-Year Sales Report from U.S. and Canadian retailers shows 2013 sales of pellet grills were up 14.4 percent over 2012, compared with gains of 5.8 percent for smokers/kamados, 3.9 percent for gas grills and 0.7 percent for charcoal grills during the same period.

Further evidence of a growing trend: Retailers packed the seats during an education session on pellet grills, held during the recent HPBExpo in Salt Lake City.

“Last year at Expo, I noticed the best-tasting food in the outdoor burn area turned out to be cooked on wood pellet grills,” said one attendee. “This year, I figured I’d better get serious about pellet grills.”

Other retailers have already jumped on the bandwagon and are successfully selling pellet cookers.

“People like the wood-smoke taste and the convenience,” says Teneil Sullivan, manager of Porter’s Mountain View Supply in Riverton and Casper, Wyoming. “We have been selling pellet grills for three years and they now outsell kamados in our stores. Awareness has been growing tremendously.”

The Tailgater from Green Mountain Grills.

According to Jason Baker of Green Mountain Grills, his company’s top dealers regularly move between 100 and 200 units a year, and net thousands of dollars a month on pellet fuel sales. Baker points out that consumer awareness and sales of pellet grills are highest in the Pacific Northwest and Heartland states of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa, with Texas and Colorado following close behind.

Atypical of most trends that start on the coasts and migrate inward, “Rural settings have accepted pellet grills fastest,” he says. “But as companies start marketing more aggressively, the bigger cities will soon follow.”

This is already happening at Bourbon BBQ in Wykoff, New Jersey, where Mike Feygin cooks on and sells only pellet grills from his combination restaurant-retail store. He carries Green Mountain Grills, Traeger, Cookshack, Louisiana Pellet Grills, and Black Olive Pellet Kamados for customers that come from throughout New Jersey and surrounding states. He also sells BBQr’s Delight and Traeger food-grade pellets by the truckload.

“Even in our area, people are aware of pellet cooking because of the ‘BBQ Pitmasters’ show,” Feygin says. “They see it produces consistent results – you just set it and forget it. And the learning curve is a lot shorter than with a charcoal-fueled kamado grill.”

Although Barbara Christensen, manager of En-R-Gy Saver, a hearth and barbecue store in Holliston, Massachusetts, says she abandoned the pellet grill category a few years ago after finding it hard to compete when Traeger started selling to Costco, she is considering it again. She believes a price point between $750 and $1,000 is the sweet spot for her customers.

“I think there is business in pellet grills out there,” she says.

Evidently, manufacturers do, too, and more and more of them are entering the category each year. By last count there were over two-dozen pellet grill companies in the marketplace, many of them launched in just the past year or two. The number of pellet fuel producers is increasing as well, gearing up to satisfy growing demand for food-grade wood pellets.

Camp Chef Pellet Grill and Smoker.

Besides Myron Mixon’s Q3 Pitmaster, Camp Chef’s new Pellet Grill & Smoker, with prices starting at $599, is targeted to the novice, entry-level, pellet griller.

“Pellet grills are fully automated and eliminate the difficulty of smoking for people,” says Ryan Neeley, marketing manager. “And our price points give more people an opportunity to explore authentic barbecuing and smoking on a pellet grill.”    

Bruce Bjorkman of MAK Grills believes the category has been helped by the increase in manufacturers offering pellet grills.

“It validates the category for consumers and dealers,” he says. MAK saw sales of its Made-in-the-USA, premium-quality pellet grills take off in 2013. “Sales of our 1-Star General, our smallest and least expensive model at $1,299, were up significantly, and we actually sold out of our 4-Star, which costs $11,000 on a cart,” says Bjorkman.

At the 2014 HPBExpo, the company captured its fourth Vesta Award in three years for its built-in 3-Star General, a unit featuring two independently controlled firepots that allow simultaneous cooking at different temperatures, such as low-and-slow smoking on one side and quick-grilling over 650-degree temperatures on the other, as well as a host of other innovative features.

Newcomer Smoke-N-Hot introduced an extensive lineup of pellet-fueled cookers, including grills, ceramic kamados, and pizza-oven style units. The cookers range in price from $950 to $2,000, and all feature a deflector plate with a section that can be removed to boost temperatures up to 700 degrees for high-heat grilling and searing.

“We believe cooking with wood pellets is the best, most flavorful, tender and juicy way to cook and we want this to be someone’s go-to grill,” says Kevin Wood, national sales manager for Smoke-N-Hot. “With more manufacturers getting into the category, we all have our own niche and appeal to all different types of consumers.”

Some new pellet grill companies with experience in pellet or wood stoves are joining the category. Family-owned Kuma Stoves has been manufacturing wood stoves and inserts for 33 years, and developed its Kuma Pellet Grill as a counter-seasonal product, according to owner Mark Freeman.

The U.S.-made, heavy-duty cooker is designed to look like a traditional barbecue grill and incorporates an innovative flame shield feature that can slide open, exposing the food to direct flame for searing and high-heat grilling. Temperatures range from 180 to 480 degrees with the flame shield closed for indirect cooking, and up to 700 degrees with the shield open for direct grilling.

 “I think this increased competition is good for the category,” says Bob Borgerding, general manager of Hearthland Products, makers of Memphis Pellet Grills. “It should help to increase awareness and move the category beyond early adopters into the mainstream. With more companies willing to make the investment in pellet grills, dealers can take advantage of the wider options available to best fit their customers.”

Introduced in 2010, Memphis Grills have been called the “Bentley of the pellet grill category,” thanks to its superior quality and high level of fit and finish. It offers four cart and two built-in models, with temperatures ranging from 180 to 700 degrees.

“We are a premium grill that just happens to burn pellets,” says Borgerding. “Our grills are flexible, easy to use, and a great solution for all types of cooking without buying multiple grills.”

Beside grills, accessories related to pellet grilling also are cropping up. At HPBExpo the Smoke Chief, a retrofit device that turns a grill into a hot or cold pellet smoker was named a Vesta Award finalist. And A-Maze-N Smoke Products launched pellet smoker trays and tubes that, when filled with food-grade wood pellets, generate smoke. These products can be used on any type of grill to bump up wood smoke flavor during grilling, or hot or cold smoking sessions.

Smoke Chief from Smokehouse Products.
Smoker Tube and Tray from A-Maze-N Smoke Products.

The Fine Print

Like all products with a learning curve, pellet grills need some extra TLC on the part of the dealer. That means extensive demo-ing, and education sessions for staff and customers alike.

“Dealer knowledge and passion is especially important when selling pellet grills,” according to Baker. “It gives consumers confidence.”

Baker cautions there may be fallout among the new batch of manufacturers, as there is when any product category catches fire. As a result, he says it’s important for dealers to ensure prospective new vendors have the know-how and longevity to support their products into the future.

“The reality with pellet grills is there are a lot more moving parts than on a gas grill,” he says. “You want the confidence that the company will still be there down the road if you need parts or support.”

Bjorkman adds, “Retailers must keep their pulse on the market. You can’t just say, ‘No one in our area is asking for pellet grills,’ because all over the country, more people are learning about the benefits of pellet grills and want to try them. Today, 95 percent of the people who buy our grills are replacing gas grills.”

“There has been a really cool and relatively fast evolution of dealer and consumer acceptance,” says Borgerding. “This category is ready to take off and explode.”

Are you listening, retailers?

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