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Hearth & Home October 2017

Vermont Casting barbecue in Victoria, B.C.
Photo Courtesy: ©2017 Keith Baker Design. Vince Klassen Photographer.

Canadian Leaf Barbecue Business: Cooking in Canada

By Lisa Readie Mayer

From cart grills, to built-ins, to outdoor kitchens, can true Outdoor Rooms® be far away for our Canadian friends?
Jeff Kozak, Napoleon Grills.

The same weather pattern that put the kibosh on spring in much of the U.S., contributed to an equally soggy, chilly and sluggish start to the key barbecue selling-season in Canada this year. “No doubt, the weather significantly impacted sales at retail this year,” says Jeff Kozak, vice president of Grill Sales, North America, at Napoleon Grills, echoing the sentiments of other manufacturers headquartered or selling in the region.

“April was very soft,” he says, “but it picked up in May when consumers finally got out their wallets and started buying grills again. Thankfully, we had a phenomenal July right into August, so in the end, sales will probably be flat, or up modestly – maybe 2% – for the year.”

He says that, although Alberta has been slower to emerge from the slump, the overall mood among Canadian dealers seemed to improve once out of the second quarter. “Now they are trying to hold on to profitability and reduce inventory through the end of year,” he says.

In the trenches, retailers fought to adapt to the fickle forecasts. “It’s been a very interesting year,” says Mike Black, president/owner of Capital Iron with three locations in Victoria, Sydney, and West Shore, British Columbia.

“Our season typically starts earlier here on the West Coast, but the weather played a big role this year. By the end of April, we were already down 20%, but later in the summer we had 64 days without rain, which has been bad for wildfires in our province, but good for barbecue sales. By August, we had made it all up and were even. We expect to be up by the end of the year. It turned out to be a good year.”

On the opposite coast, Ryan Bloom, owner of Urban Bonfire in Montréal, says weather patterns over the past few years are responsible for an emerging trend in grill sales at his store. “I think summer now starts later, but lasts longer,” Bloom says. “We see the season shifting into fall, with people enjoying cooking and entertaining outside until the snow falls, or even beyond.”

Outdoor Kitchens

The weather didn’t just impact grill and accessory sales, but sales of outdoor kitchens, as well. According to 30-year-veteran barbecue retailer Duff Dixon, “The wet spring was brutal and it didn’t get much better all summer in Ontario. It would be great for three days, then rain for four days. It’s been a challenging weather pattern that’s definitely affected sales of outdoor kitchens.”

The former owner of Ontario Gas Barbecues, once nick-named “The World’s Largest Barbecue Store,” remains as an advisor to the new owners, who last year rebranded the business Barbecue World and opened two more locations. “When the weather prevents people from using their barbecue, they’ll say, ‘We’ll wait one more year with the old one before we invest in a new grill or outdoor kitchen.’ We have seen our contractor-partners’ outdoor kitchen projects delayed due to weather, so customers weren’t coming in until late summer to pick out stuff they would ordinarily have been buying in the spring.”

It was the same scenario at Cobra Fireplace & Grills in Uxbridge, Ontario, according to Shawn LaForest. “We’ve been talking with landscapers who say their customers held off on Outdoor Room projects because of the wet weather, and put them off ’till next year,” he says. “It hurt this year, but we think it’s a good sign for next year.”

Ryan Bloom, Urban Bonfire.

Assuming Mother Nature cooperates, that should mean a banner 2018 for the Outdoor Room, which continues to gain acceptance and grow throughout Canada. According to Bloom, “Canada is still very much in the early adopter phase, and the Outdoor Room is still in its infancy, but the shift is happening.”

He says only extreme grilling enthusiasts were buying outdoor kitchens in Canada originally, but now the appeal is more about the lifestyle. “The outdoor space is no longer an afterthought,” he says. “Our clients want to have a great entertaining area with the performance, functionality, and design aesthetics to match the indoor kitchen.”

Bloom says outdoor kitchens comprised 15% of Urban Bonfire’s business when the store first opened in 2013. Today, the segment accounts for 85% of sales, with most at the luxury end of the market. “We offer customers a vertically integrated, turnkey solution to outdoor kitchens,” he says. “We can design it, and since we partnered with a metal fabricator last year, now we can manufacture it. We do all our own installations, and we can even offer in-home chef services for clients who buy an outdoor kitchen from us.”

One trend he is noticing among his customers, whether they’re downsizing Baby Boomers or first-home-buying Millennials, they want mobility and as a result, are choosing modular outdoor kitchens, rather than those built into permanent masonry bases.

LaForest also says his customers are choosing ready-to-finish cabinetry, or modular cabinetry, avoiding custom-masonry islands because of weight and permanency issues. Since investing in outdoor kitchen displays, sales in the category have grown considerably for the retailer. Cobra Fireplace & Grills offers in-house design, building, and installation services, and also partners with contractors, landscapers and builders on projects.

LaForest says budgets typically run $15,000 to $30,000, adding that, “Customers often come in with big ideas, but when they see the price, they pare down their expectations and wish lists.” One trend of note: “We’re seeing a lot of people putting in an outdoor kitchen as a retirement present. They want it for entertaining and family gatherings. It’s more about lifestyle than cooking.”

Based on projects in the pipeline, Black believes outdoor kitchen sales will be up next year at Capital Iron. He frequently provides built-in grills, components and advice to contractor partners who “have great ideas, but don’t have the practical knowledge about building outdoor kitchens.” The retailer believes in a pragmatic approach. He says, “There are three things you NEED – a good-quality grill; doors to access the propane tank or natural gas hook-up; and a built-in garbage can. Everything else is a bonus based on budget. The customer appreciates not spending money they don’t have to.”

Oasis modular outdoor kitchen from Napoleon.

He says modular outdoor kitchens made of powder-coated aluminum and available in 50 colors are popular because they won’t rust in salt air, as are custom islands made of stone or wood (with approved, fire-retardant liners). He notes that 90% of projects feature granite counters. For customers with smaller budgets, Black offers Napoleon Oasis modular outdoor kitchens. “If they can’t afford a custom outdoor kitchen, they can afford this,” he says.

Gas fire pits are becoming more popular every year in his stores, as are wall-mounted outdoor heaters. “In our region, they really help extend the season and the wall mount doesn’t take up space on the patio,” Black says. “The only downside is manufacturers haven’t found a way to make them pretty yet – there’s a challenge for the industry!”

Kozak says, from a unit perspective, built-ins still represent a small percentage of grill sales in Canada. “But we’re seeing double-digit growth every year, and built-in grill heads, doors, and drawers have experienced greater percentage growth than cart grills,” he says.

Kozak credits sales gains in Napoleon’s modular Oasis line to a greater presence on dealers’ sales floors, and its turnkey, DIY appeal. “It’s not intimidating,” he says. “For consumers who aspire to have an outdoor kitchen, they can do it themselves in a day. We supply all components except for the counter.”

He says the company will add 26 new, built-in components next year, including various sizes of doors, drawers, sideburners, power burners and other elements. Kozak notes that Canadian consumers also are investing in fire pits, flame tables and other fire features for the Outdoor Room.

Ben Street, Broil King.

Broil King will enter the Outdoor Room category in 2018 with the introduction of its Imperial series built-in grills and components, and a cabinet pod system, according to brand manager Ben Street. “We’re seeing people at all income levels willing to invest in their backyard and create a full outdoor kitchen,” he says.

According to Sharla Wagy, general manager at Memphis Wood Fire Grills, the company is expanding its built-in offerings with new stainless-steel, soft-close doors and drawers to coordinate with its built-in grills. “As in the U.S., the majority of what we sell is on carts, but sales of built-ins are growing, and consumers are often including more than one grill in their outdoor kitchen. That second appliance might be a kamado, or pizza oven, but increasingly it’s a pellet grill.”

Solid Fuels Catching On

Indeed, Canadians – who traditionally have favored gas grilling – are beginning to embrace low-and-slow barbecuing and smoking over wood, charcoal, and pellet fuels. According to the The Globe and Mail, the country’s national newspaper, “Canada is a country of grillers…but things are starting to change on this side of the border. Kick-started by food television and the rise of a competition circuit, barbecue has been gaining fans here over the past decade. Home cooks are graduating from gas grills to charcoal grills to smokers, while a new crop of smoke-obsessed Canadian chefs is giving diners a taste for the real stuff.”

“One difference from the U.S. we’ve found,” Wagy says, “is that Canadian consumers look at smoking and barbecuing as an entire epicurean experience, creating wonderful, high-quality, gourmet food. In the U.S., people tend to think of grilling, barbecuing and smoking as outdoor summer activities or events. We’re seeing tremendous growth in Canada like we are in the U.S. Of course, it’s a smaller market overall, but we’re up over 100% this year, and the uptick is happening at dealers from the East Coast to the West Coast.”

One of those places is Cobra Fireplace & Grills, where LaForest says pellet grills are frequently displacing kamados as the second grill in an outdoor kitchen. “Customers come in thinking they want a kamado, but sometimes, after discussion, they realize they’re not willing to put in the time commitment for charcoal and end up with a pellet grill,” he says. “It offers the best of both worlds.

“They’re easy to start, run automatically and consistently, and they can sear and low-and-slow smoke.” He says some customers in his store get their feet wet with an affordable Green Mountain Grill, before upgrading to a premium Memphis Wood Fired Grill.

Bloom has had less luck with pellet grills, noting, “I wish they were more popular, but we are about 10 years behind the U.S. in that category.” But he credits exposure to smoke flavors in restaurants as helping to grow interest in cooking with solid fuels.

“Restaurants are moving away from fussy, molecular gastronomy to simple, good food cooked over natural fuels,” he says. “In fact, the most critically acclaimed restaurant in Montréal cooks over wood and charcoal.” Bloom says kamado grills, including Big Green Egg, Caliber and Kamado Joe, now account for 50% of his store’s grill sales. He says offset smokers from Yoder are also gaining traction.

Black is seeing a resurgence in charcoal fuel and grill sales at Capital Iron, particularly kamados and charcoal kettles, but pellet grills and offset smokers have been slower to catch on in his region. “A lot of smokers sold in Canada are electric for fish,” he says.

Duff Dixon, Barbecue World.

Duff Dixon has been leading the charcoal charge in Canada for decades. “We have a 400 sq. ft. charcoal room with different types of charcoal from all over the world that draws customers from across the region,” he says. “When chimney starters were first introduced, we sold more than any other Canadian retailer. The charcoal guy is far more passionate than the average gas guy, and I want to be his best friend. When someone asks where he buys (barbecue products), I want him to say my store.”

Street says, “Cooking over charcoal and wood gives that authentic smoke flavor. That’s always been part of the barbecue culture in the U.S. and now it’s growing in Canada. It’s aspirational and very popular on food TV, so I think everyone really jumped into it last year. Broil King offers the kamado-style Broil King Keg, as well as offset smokers, and other charcoal grills. It will introduce pellet grills next year with temperature ranges from low-and-slow smoking to steakhouse-searing.

“We have a big push to get dealers outside in front of their stores to demo how simple these grills are to use and how great the food tastes,” he continues. “Monkey see monkey do. People think this kind of cooking takes a lot of effort, but it’s really easy.”

Top of the Class

In fact, demos and cooking classes are credited with helping inspire consumers to grill and smoke with charcoal, wood and pellets. Following the lead of U.S. dealers, Canadian retailers are embracing cooking classes to expand their customer base, grow sales, and introduce a new revenue stream. Cobra Fireplace & Grills has started conducting demos at nearby farm stores, grilling locally-grown vegetables and free-range beef. They participate in area rib fests, and host demo weekends to promote specific grill brands.

Capital Iron demos every Saturday in its functioning outdoor kitchen display. The space is also used for the private dinners the retailer donates as prizes to local charity auctions every year. Winning bidders have donated as much as $4,000 for a five-course dinner for six people on a night of their choosing, hosted by Black and his wife Eveline at the store.

While the Blacks entertain guests and tell them about the history of their business, the head chef from a local hotel prepares the meal in the outdoor kitchen area. Besides positioning the retailer as a good community partner, the events have led to sales of a wood-fired pizza oven, patio furniture, custom fire pits, and other items, according to Black.

Urban Bonfire also hosts charity events, in addition to about 25 classes a year in the fully functional display kitchens inside and outside the store. Topics have covered traditional barbecuing and smoking, but typically focus on “refined grilling techniques” including cold smoking, grilling vegetables, breakfast, and workshops for kids, according to Bloom. “These subjects are relevant for our customers,” he says.

Dixon says new outdoor-kitchen classrooms at Barbecue World stores are home to a large roster of classes and demos. “The classes are not huge money makers; they’re mostly revenue-neutral,” he says. “But they are part of the ‘shoppertainment’ experience that makes our stores ‘destinations’ and why customers come to us.”

Industry Issues

Of course, Canadian retailers face challenges, just like their U.S. counterparts. Kozak points to a changing retail landscape, where consumers are becoming increasingly confident buying online, as one of the biggest. “Consumers are starting their research online, and whether they ultimately go to a store to buy, or to qualify and then go back home to buy, the Internet is a reality for brick-and-mortar retailers,” he says. “The challenge is how do dealers adapt with a digital response? If they don’t, they will not even be part of the equation. They’ll be left out of the purchase decision.”

Bloom sees greater competition from nearby brick-and-mortar stores as his biggest headache. “There is more brand crossover among retailers in Québec and Montréal,” he says. “We used to have exclusivity in the marketplace on certain luxury outdoor products, but now consumers might be able to find those products at a closer store.”

Mike Black, Capital Iron.

Mostly, however, he finds increased competition as helpful in growing awareness of the premium outdoor kitchen category. “An affluent customer may have a $20,000 Thermador in their indoor kitchen, but they think a Weber is the top-of-the-line grill. The more retailers exposing customers to premium grill brands with better performance and design, the better for all.”

For Mike Black, a lack of CSA standards for built-in barbecue grills in outdoor kitchens means he faces inconsistent – and often illogical – municipal regulations from province to province. “For instance, an outdoor kitchen is considered combustible when under a roof, even if there is a vent hood, while a cart grill would be okay,” he explains. “The industry needs to get together to come up with a standard and get tested to it, otherwise we will continue to lose business. I recently lost a sale of 18 built-in grills to a complex of $1.5 to $2 million townhomes, because officials won’t allow them under roofs.”

Future Forecast

As for next year, most Canadian retailers and manufacturers are thinking positively. LaForest, for one, offers a sunny prediction: “With the poor weather this year, I think consumers will be ready to spend every minute outdoors next year. I think 2018 will be an awesome year!”

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