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Hearth & Home April 2016

Mini MAK from MAK Grills.

Momentum Builds

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Pellet grills provide great flavor, and are so easy to use even a caveman could do it.

David Clack is proof that good things come to those who wait. For the past 15 years, the president of David’s Stove Shop in Weatherford, Texas, has been patiently selling pellet grills, a category he admits was initially slow to catch on. But the proprietor of the eclectic country store with a product mix ranging from wind chimes to wood stoves (but no gas or kamado grills), knew it was just a matter of time before pellet grills took off.

“I’m pretty well brainwashed,” he says. “They’re so easy and the results and flavor are great.”

He credits his infectious enthusiasm, along with customers’ word-of-mouth referrals, for keeping the category growing at a quiet simmer in his store for more than a decade. But over the past few years, he is finally seeing pellet grills – he carries Memphis, Yoder and Louisiana brands – gain traction and take off.

At Mike West’s BBQ Island stores in Tempe and Scottsdale, Arizona, pellet grill sales were up 81 percent last year, even outpacing sales of kamado grills that grew 28 percent.

BBQ Island, Arizona.

“Everybody is looking for something different,” he says. “People want wood smoke flavor, but they’re intimidated by stick burners. Pellet grills give almost the same flavor profile, but are much easier to use. Also, when teams win with pellet grills on the competition circuit, it adds credibility and people take notice.”

West carries six brands, including Green Mountain, Memphis, MAK, Traeger, Fast Eddy by Cookshack, and Timber Ridge, and maintains a large inventory so customers don’t have to wait. “People really like the one-button operation,” he says. “The learning curve is short and the results are consistent.”

Pellet grill manufacturers have had an exceptional year, too. Jason Baker, director of Sales at Green Mountain Grills indicates sales were up by about 45 percent overall last year, and as much as 65 percent in some pockets of the country. Even the Northeast, which has been slower to adopt pellet grills, is catching up, according to Baker.

“We had super growth throughout the U.S., Canada and Australia,” he says. “I’m loving what I’m seeing.”

So is Bruce Bjorkman. By November of 2015, MAK Grills had already hit its total sales for all of 2014. “It was one of the best years ever for MAK,” he says.

According to Ryan Neeley of Camp Chef, pellet grills are attracting new people to smoking, the hottest trend in outdoor cooking today.

“Many pellet grill buyers are average outdoor cooks who see all the excitement around smoking and want to try it,” he says. “Once they see how automated a pellet grill is, they say, ‘It’s so easy, I can do it.’ These are people who would never have bought a traditional smoker, so pellet grills are not cannibalizing smoker sales. They’re adding to dealers’ overall sales.”

Based on industry research, Sharla Wagy, general manager at Memphis Wood Fire Grills, predicts the pellet grill category will quadruple in the coming years as interest in wood-fired grilling and smoking catches on. The company’s National Sales manager, Rick Price, says he anticipates adding three more salespeople this year to service new dealers interested in carrying the line.

“We are where the kamado category was 20 years ago,” he observes. He expects the differential to close quickly as people discover the ease of use of pellet grills. “They like that they can control the cooking experience like an indoor appliance, and most importantly, the great flavor,” he says. “We’re hitting it out of the park and we’re on a phenomenal growth trend.”

Who’s Buying Pellet Grills?

Bjorkman says 90 percent of MAK Grills’ customers are replacing a gas grill, looking for better flavor along with the convenience. Baker sees some gas-switchers in the marketplace, but says most of his Green Mountain Grill sales are to consumers who want to learn about low-and-slow cooking of larger cuts of meat such as pork shoulder, brisket and tri-tip.

“They are adding a pellet grill because they want to try different types of outdoor cooking,” he says.

Clack says most of his customers already have charcoal and gas grills and, “want the newest thing.” He says, after a year or two, customers often “become so fanatical about cooking on pellets they want to trade up, and come back to buy a premium model.”

Memphis Pro with new Cloud based WiFi control from
Memphis Wood Fire Grills.

Price says many Memphis Wood Fire Grills’ customers were early pellet adopters, now upgrading to a better-quality unit with more cooking versatility. He says his grills are increasingly likely to be incorporated with other appliances into an outdoor kitchen, as indicated by a rise in built-in sales. “On some of our models the split between built-in and cart sales is 50-50,” he says.

According to Price, the company is getting a boost from its relationship with barbecue and grilling expert Steven Raichlen. Memphis Wood Fire Grills has supplied grills for Raichlen’s cookbook recipe development and Barbecue University cooking school, and is a sponsor of his Project Smoke television series.

“We thought this would be an ideal audience for us, and we’ve seen real results from the relationship,” Price says. Among them: a noticeable surge in consumer and dealer inquiries after each airing. Price says the relationship has helped open the door to dealers on the East Coast. “One dealer saw our pellet grill on Project Smoke and said, ‘If Steven Raichlen likes this, I want to carry it.’”

Crowded Playing Field

There are estimated to be nearly three dozen companies offering pellet grills, with some of them now selling in Big Box stores, warehouse clubs and home improvement centers. But rather than feeling threatened, many manufacturers and dealers believe the increased exposure is actually contributing to the success of the category in specialty channels.

“This category still needs a specialty dealer,” says West. “In a Big Box store, there is no one to teach customers how to use a pellet grill or talk them through issues they might be experiencing, so they get frustrated and return it. We can coach people and troubleshoot to improve their success rate so they are more satisfied with the product and their experience. As a result, our return rate is less than one percent.”

According to Baker, a customer might first see a pellet grill in a Big Box store, become intrigued, and then go home to Google it. Through their research, they’ll find other pellet grill companies with products and features ranging from entry- level to luxury price points.

“Consumer exposure to pellet grills at Big Box stores flows down to all pellet grill companies,” he says. “The competition has been good for the category and benefits everyone.”

According to Price, there is plenty of opportunity to go around. He says, while Memphis Wood Fire Grills is positioned at the higher end of the category, there is room for brands at different price points and quality levels along the continuum.

Bjorkman agrees. “Smaller, value-priced models (at Big Box stores) serve as a way for people to enter the category and eventually graduate to a more fully-featured, better grade of pellet grill,” he says. “We see each of those sales as a future MAK owner.”

Neeley believes the increased competition has also helped to validate the category for retailers. “It says, ‘This is a boat you want to jump on.’ We’re seeing a lot more dealer inquiries lately,” he says.

SmokePro DLX Pellet Grill from Camp Chef.

Recurring Sales Lead to
Relationships & Recurring Sales

Neeley says the opportunity for add-on sales of cooking pellets and accessories helps to seal the deal with dealers. “Sales of fuel and accessories can be a significant area of business,” he says. “A lot of our customers are into cooking wild game, so our jerky racks do really well.”

According to Clack, return visits for fuel are opportunities to sell customers something else. “The grill sale is just the beginning of the relationship,” he says. To further strengthen these customer connections, Clack demos pellet grills every Saturday, cooking brisket, pork, ribs and even cake. The demos often turn into impromptu cooking classes or troubleshooting sessions.

“Many customers come back every week, just to talk about what they’re cooking,” he says. “They might say, ‘I tried making brisket like you did, but it didn’t come out as good,’ so we’ll give them advice. This personal interaction builds trust and creates strong relationships, and it’s been very helpful at building sales.”

West not only regularly demos at his store – he has a burn model for each line he carries – he loans demo units to potential buyers for at-home test drives. He also gives a pellet grill to all of his employees. “It really pays off because everyone on staff can talk knowledgeably about the product and, in turn, becomes a salesperson,” he says. “Even the delivery guys have pellet grills so they can teach people how to use them when they make deliveries. The enthusiasm is contagious. When you teach people how to use their pellet grills, they love them.”

What to Expect This Year

MAK anticipates another good year in 2016, based onthe introduction of their innovative FlashFire ignition system, available on new 2016 grills and as a retrofit kit for pre-existing models. Bjorkman says the ignition system is made using a highly-durable, advanced ceramics material (rated at 90,000 on/off cycles), and designed to dramatically reduce igniter component failures, and deliver cook-ready temps in as little as three minutes.

“We think it will be a game-changer,” says Bjorkman.

Later this year, the company will introduce the Mini MAK portable grill that will use a Thermal Electric Generator to eliminate the need for electricity to operate the igniter, fan or auger motor.

Camp Chef has introduced the SmokePro, an optional propane-fueled searing station attached to its pellet grills in place of a side shelf. Available on new models or as a retrofit the unit creates a hybrid grill with the ability to smoke, barbecue and sear.

“This accessory was designed for those who might be on the fence about buying a pellet grill,” says Neeley. “As innovation improves versatility and enhances the experience, the category grows.”

WiFi smart-phone App from Green Mountain Grills.

Green Mountain Grills is upping its high-tech game with a new-and- improved WiFi smart-phone App that remotely monitors and controls cooking. Memphis Wood Fire Grills is upgrading its Cloud-based WiFi controller with a larger screen, three meat probes and iPhone connectivity.

Take Away Tip:
The Internet Is Your Friend

“If I had to attribute the growth of the pellet grill category to one thing, I would say it’s the Internet,” says Baker. “People are not just searching ‘pellet grills,’ but also terms like ‘smoking,’ ‘brisket,’ and ‘pulled pork’ that bring people to pellet grill manufacturers, and ultimately to dealers. There is a ton of great online content out there – how-to videos, informational blogs, and user forums. We have a YouTube video on how to smoke salmon that has nearly 800,000 views. This kind of traffic is an indicator of the growing interest in pellet grills. Our industry is really benefiting.”

Clack has experienced this first hand. “People might be watching a cooking show or otherwise hear about pellet grills, and they’ll start researching online,” he says. “They’ll end up at a manufacturer’s website and that leads them to our website. Now people come in looking for pellet grills, and sometimes even a specific brand. The Internet has been the biggest force to propel the category forward.”

“It’s amazing to hear about the intense amount of research people are doing online before pulling the trigger to buy a pellet grill,” Bjorkman says. According to Baker, hits are up 80 percent on the Green Mountain Grills website. “And that translates to more sales,” he adds.

Experts say specialty dealers who improve their online presence will likewise improve sales. They advise listing on Google Places, having a professional website, and stepping up social media with educational content.

“This year is going to blow the roof off the category,” says Bjorkman.

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