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Hearth & Home February 2017

Still Smokin' Hot

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Smokers and kamados continue to do well, thanks to a passionate fan base and growing interest in low-and-slow cooking.

You know that idea of fame espoused by Andy Warhol? Well, nobody told the smoker and kamado category it was only supposed to last 15 minutes. The “it grills,” and the solid-fuel-fired, low-and-slow barbecue techniques they inspire, are still very much enjoying their time in the culinary spotlight.

Case in point: 80% of the semi-finalists for the 2016 James Beard Best New Restaurant Award have smoked or wood-grilled dishes on their menus. The winner, Shaya, a New Orleans restaurant offering cuisine inspired by the foods of Israel, North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Greece, declares its wood-fired oven “central to both the menu and the dining experience.”

There’s more: Social media platform Pinterest declared wood and charcoal smoke to be one of the “Big Flavor Makers” of 2016, and, out of 4 million food-related Tweets last year, barbecue ranked in the top 10.

Smoker and kamado grills, and smoke-cooking techniques, are featured regularly on PBS and Food Network cooking programs, and have been the subjects of dozens of new cookbooks the past couple of years, including The New York Times bestseller “Project Smoke” by Steven Raichlen.

The subject also made its way to both primetime and late-night TV. Last December, entertainer Harry Connick, Jr. talked traditional barbecue techniques on “The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and hosted barbecue expert Meathead “Amazing Ribs” Goldwyn on his own talk show, “Harry.”

“Jimmy Kimmel Live” featured a segment with celebrity pitmaster Adam Perry Lang cooking on Big Green Eggs.

Big Green Egg’s Acacia table surround.

Looks like the phenomenon will continue: The market research firm Mintel says both casual and fine-dining restaurants will continue to embrace “fundamental preparation methods” such as “fire-grilling and smoking” in 2017. Food industry newsletter “Food Navigator USA” expects smoke and fire-roasted flavors will continue to permeate new products in the dairy, produce, snack, dessert, and other categories this year, and The New York Times includes smoked foods on its list of top food trend predictions for 2017.

Smokin’ Hot

Smokers, kamados, and smoked and barbecued foods are definitely feeling the love, and the industry is going all-out to fan the flames. The number of manufacturers in the space continues to increase, as do the product incarnations.

Today there are kamados made from ceramic, steel, stainless steel, and cast iron; in various sizes from small tabletops to units the size of small cars. They’re available in both traditional and elongated oval shapes; fired by charcoal, pellets, gas, and electricity; and come finished in a rainbow of colors, glossy enameled surfaces, and even mosaic tiles.

Smokers are now offered in every configuration from traditional offset barrel smokers to drum-style smokers to stainless-steel cabinet smokers. Some require considerable hands-on tending, while others are completely automated. There are smokers fueled by charcoal and wood, as well as gas, electricity, pellets, and condensed wood bisquettes.

Kamado Joes’ Classic grill.

“There is a gradual trend away from gas toward solid-fuel products,” says Bobby Brennan, president of Kamado Joe. “There is an emotional engagement that you don’t get from a gas grill or even a pellet grill. Striking a match and lighting the fire is part of the appeal. It has a therapeutic effect, like pouring a glass of wine might be for some. People are passionate about it. Either you get it or you don’t.”

Apparently, a lot of people “get it.”

“Enthusiasm is very high and the category is really growing,” says Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons, makers of Louisiana Grills kamados and smokers. “We’re strong in the U.S., and growing internationally in the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Korea, Australia, and even the United Arab Emirates. We’ve expanded our sales team significantly this year and have been blessed with success.”

Thiessen says the company is deep into R&D on new kamado models for 2018, but in the meantime, this year will introduce high-performance gas and electric smokers with “cutting-edge looks” and new burner technology enabling greater temperature ranges and cold-smoking capabilities.

“Our core is based around wood-cooking and smoking, and we’re heavily vested in product development. We want to be a destination for innovative products at good value,” says Thiessen.

Louisiana Grill from Dansons.

Weber has seen excitement grow in the smoker category over the past few years, and sales of its charcoal Kettle grills and Smokey Mountain Cooker smokers along with it, according to Dale Wytiaz, president of Weber Americas.

The company hopes the smoking trend will inspire its base of Kettle loyalists to trade up to its new Summit Charcoal Grill, a super-premium cross between a kettle and a kamado with a double-walled, insulated body to hold heat, a gas-ignition system to light the charcoal, a smoking diffuser plate, and an easy clean-out system.

Porcelain-enameled, charcoal-fueled, steel drum-style smokers such as the Gateway Drum Smoker and The Pit Barrel Cooker are gaining traction for their simplicity of use and easy-entry price tags. Landmann, a well-respected and recognized outdoor cooking brand in Europe, plans to introduce a line of heavy-duty, offset barrel smokers and electric cabinet smokers to the American specialty retail channel.

Electric cabinet smoker by Landmann.

“Consumers are becoming passionate grillers and often own multiple grills,” says Todd Burns, Landmann-USA’s Eastern Sales manager. “Those second grills are likely to be smokers or kamados that can handle long cook times and create more complex flavors.”

Kamado Is King

While smokers are definitely catching on, the kamado still reigns as king of cookers. According to Ardy Arani, CEO/managing director of category leader Big Green Egg, the company has made inroads into 4,000 dealers, thousands of restaurant kitchens, and countless residential backyards in 50 countries worldwide. He says the brands’ decades-long stretch of annual growth is partly because people consider it much more than just a cooking appliance.

“People have developed passions around our product much like they would sports or music or a cultural interest,” he says. “Big Green Egg is a lifestyle product that’s all about camaraderie and shared experience with family and friends.”

That camaraderie has created an enviable fan base that gathers to share ideas and recipes at the company’s annual Eggtoberfest in Atlanta, more than 60 regional Eggfests across the country, and in online forums and social media posts. It has spawned cookbooks, a lifestyle magazine, and a state-of-the-art culinary center at company headquarters for classes, training and product testing.

Another factor in Big Green Egg’s ongoing success has been its extensive line of accessory products. Five new cast-iron accessories, including a plancha griddle, will be introduced in 2017, tying into the growing cast-iron cookware trend, according to Business Development manager Jerry Stone.

The company also will offer a heat- resistant deck-protector mat, as well as new table surrounds made from Acacia hardwoods, in response to customer requests for surrounds that coordinate with outdoor furniture.

Bobby Brennan, owner, says Kamado Joe has enjoyed “a very good year” as well. “We’re up 28 percent domestically, and we’re also doing well internationally in Europe and Australia,” he says. He is building a base of independent, specialty hearth, pool-and-spa, and hardware dealers, and plans to introduce a handful of “dramatic product innovations and improvements” in 2017, including a new patented firebox design, an easy-lifting air hinge that props open at any angle, upgraded hardware, and a redesigned top vent for more precise and predictable temperature control.

“Initially, we had a value-driven philosophy,” Brennan says. “But now, we believe that in such a passionate category, consumers want the best quality and most innovative product available, even if they have to pay a little more. We’re focused on performance and we’ve become obsessed about making a better, more innovative product. We are on a quest to be the best.”

The Icon 100 Series in orange by Vision Grills.

Innovation is also at the core of Vision Grills, which launched its kamado line one year ago. Nearly every aspect of the cookers – right down to the textured exterior patterns – has been patented or has a patent pending. One of the line’s most differentiating features is its optional QuickChange Gas Insert, a plug-n-play burner that inserts into the base of the kamado to allow the user to switch between charcoal and gas fuels at will. The burner system has a unique lava-stone heat diffuser to catch and vaporize drippings into flavorful smoke.

The gas option has been a hit with customers, according to Scott Walters, executive vice president, Sales and Marketing. “About half of all sales include the gas insert. People like that they can play with fire on weekends, but have the convenience of gas during the week.”

This year, the company is creating a new brand exclusive to specialty dealers. The Icon line will retain the unique features found in Vision kamados, but will come with upgrades such as cast-iron cooking grids and user-friendly color-coded ventilation controls, and will be offered in a greater variety of colors and sizes, including a new tabletop portable model.

Icon kamado purchasers also will have the option of adding a new patent-pending electric conversion kit. “The electric quick-conversion kit opens the ceramic kamado market to condo and apartment dwellers for the first time,” says Walters. “The ceramic really retains the heat and it works great.

“We don’t want to be ‘me too,’” he continues. “We offer very innovative features at better price points, and the marketplace is responding. We have added great distributors, we’re growing our dealer base in the specialty and appliance channels, and we’re tapping into an expanded consumer audience with our gas and electric options. Our growth should be phenomenal this coming year.”

Longtime kamado manufacturer Grill Dome differentiates itself with thicker ceramics, five glossy color finishes, and a dome that’s four to five in. taller than most other brands, according to owner Ashish Kohli.

Primo Oval XL 400 All-in-One from Primo Grills.

Primo Ceramic Grills has introduced the All-in-One series – complete kits containing a fully-assembled oval kamado, cradle base, side tables, ash tool and grate lifter – that are ready to light out of the box. “It’s a good value, with a lot of bang for the buck,” says CEO George Samaras. His company is enlisting celebrity barbecuer and TV judge Tuffy Stone as a spokesperson this year to help elevate awareness of the brand.

Coyote Outdoor Living recently added the Asado Ceramic Cooker to its collection of gas and charcoal grills. The kamado comes with Coyote’s signature laser-cut cooking grate and a host of optional add-on accessories.

“We want to be a one-stop-shop for all types of quality cooking appliances for the outdoor kitchen without (the customer) having to spend a huge amount,” says company president Jim Ginocchi.

Newcomer Golden’s Cast Iron Cooker is a made-in-the-USA kamado constructed of 460 lbs. of cast iron for even, radiant heating, great searing capability, and no-crack durability.

Caliber Pro Kamados are made from dual-walled, insulated stainless steel, and feature a patented flue-way system, and a patented, unique-to-the-industry integrated rotisserie option. Available in stainless steel, four glossy standard color finishes, or unlimited custom colors, the brand has become a go-to for designers searching for a sophisticated-looking kamado for outdoor kitchens, according to Dan Nichols, executive VP. “In a sea of ‘sameness,’ we are different and beautiful,” he says.

Caliber Pro Kamado.

Is an End to the Trend in Sight?

Some dealers are finding that, after years of continued growth, their kamado sales declined last year, a result of market saturation and increased competition. Larry Traylor, owner of Hearth & Patio Shoppe in Midlothian, Virginia, says, “Sales of kamado grills were way off, down 50 to 75 percent last year. We used to sell four to five a week, but now it’s more like four or five a month. My market is flooded with dealers; there must be 12 to 15 in town now, and, the Big Box stores have cheap copycat kamados for sale. It seems like the category is saturated.”

Matthew Bourlier, owner of Bourlier’s Barbecue and Fireplace in Royal Oak, Michigan, has experienced a similar slow-down in kamado sales over the last year. He says his customers are increasingly opting for the convenience of pellet grills instead. “It might be that the kamado category has matured or peaked,” he says. “People are very knowledgeable about smoking today, and they’re choosing pellet grills because they’re so easy.”

Some dealers, however, say their kamado sales are strong and they remain bullish on the category. Still others say charcoal-fueled kamados and smokers are only just catching on in their stores and believe there is significant opportunity for future growth.

Arani of Big Green Egg says the retail landscape has indeed evolved over the last five years, and there is an increasing need for dealers to “become more than a storefront with grills on the floor and a cash register.” He says dealers who have embraced the concept of “grilltainment” and try to engage customers through the experience of lighting the grill, demoing, sampling, and holding cooking classes “are most successful and sell a higher volume of product.”

With luck and continuing innovation, the smoke won’t be clearing in this category anytime soon.

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