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Hearth & Home March 2018

Oasis outdoor kitchen from Napoleon Grills.

Mod Squad

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Modular outdoor kitchens offer high-end style, turnkey ease, and attractive profits.

In the early days of the Outdoor Room trend, consumers who wanted to add an outdoor kitchen to their backyard living space had two main options: a masonry island built onsite, or an off-site-prefabricated island finished with stucco or faux stone. While the former afforded complete customizability and rustic good looks, the design and installation process was lengthy, complex and pricey. The latter had fewer opportunities for customizing and often lacked style, but made up for it with drop-in-place installation and budget-friendly prices.

While both remain popular choices today, consumers have lots of new options from which to choose. One of them, modular outdoor kitchens, is really catching on as a smart and stylish solution for outdoor cooking and entertaining.

Modular outdoor kitchens are made from freestanding, self-contained, fully-finished, stainless-steel or cast-aluminum cabinet units that are manufactured off-site. They can be delivered either completely assembled or knocked down in panels for Ikea-like assembly by the dealer or consumer, and then the modular components are linked together on the patio to form a ready-to-go outdoor kitchen. The stock cabinet modules can be arranged in unlimited ways, just like indoor kitchen cabinets, to create completely customized configurations.

Aesthetically, modular outdoor kitchen cabinetry looks a lot like indoor cabinetry. With full overlay doors and no rock or stucco to break up the look, modular kitchens have clean lines, and a sleek, sophisticated appearance.

Depending on the manufacturer, the cabinetry often comes with the option of powder-coat finishes in a vast palate of colors or wood-grain looks, and choice of door styles including flat-panel, raised-panel, louvered, bead-board, Shaker, and other looks. There are cabinet modules for storage and for all types of cooking appliances, refrigerators, sinks, bars, trash bins, and other functions. They are usually available in a variety of widths, as well as corner sections, spacers, end panels, raised ledges, and other transition pieces to create L-shaped, U-shaped or other custom layouts, just like indoor cabinets.

Modular outdoor kitchen with NuBlack Hammertone, Sky Blue Sea Glass doors by Danver.

Benefits of Modular Outdoor Kitchens

Modular systems offer many benefits for consumers, as well as for retailers, landscape architects, designers, and others who specify, sell and install outdoor kitchens, so it’s not surprising the concept is catching on. For one, modular outdoor kitchens dovetail with the growing trend of integrating indoor and outdoor living spaces.

“As indoor-outdoor lines blur, consumers are looking to bring interior style and sophistication outside,” says Mitch Slater, president of Danver, manufacturers of modular outdoor kitchen cabinetry systems under the Danver and Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens brand names. “The trend is changing from wanting the outdoor kitchen to look like part of the landscape, to wanting it to look like the interior kitchen. Modular outdoor kitchens fit with that because they have a lighter, more contemporary, indoor look. Fewer people want the look of rock today.”

Modular outdoor kitchens also offer tremendous flexibility. They can be changed, expanded or reconfigured at any time by unbolting and rearranging the components, much like a set of Legos or building blocks. More modules can be added as budget allows, or should the homeowners realize they need more storage, or want to add another grill or appliance to their outdoor kitchen. Because it’s not a permanent structure, it can be easily relocated within the outdoor living area, or even moved to another home.

“It’s a great solution for people who entertain a lot because you can move it to a different area of the patio, by the pool, or out of the way entirely if you need space for a party,” says Justin Monroy, Market Development manager, Outdoor, for DCS by Fisher & Paykel, manufacturers of the Liberty line of modular components. “And you can position it so the grill chef or caterer can serve guests right from the grill as part of the buffet line.”

Modular outdoor kitchens are a good choice for homeowners with small outdoor living spaces. According to Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, makers of the Arcadia line of modular outdoor kitchens, “Modular systems are significantly more efficient in their use of space, and offer more storage and functionality than a masonry kitchen within the same footprint.” Since they do not have the weight issues inherent with masonry islands, modular outdoor kitchens can typically be used on decks, balconies, or in urban rooftop outdoor living spaces.

Another benefit is quick installation. According to Debra Haase, president of Pennsylvania-based Cardinal Systems, makers of Sierra Outdoor Designs cabinetry, modular outdoor kitchens can often be assembled in a matter of hours, as compared to several weeks or longer for masonry islands. In addition, there is no waiting for permits or subcontractors.

Sierra Outdoor Designs modular outdoor kitchen by Cardinal Systems.

Growth in Sales and Options

As consumers, retailers and specifiers become more aware of these benefits, the category is really taking off in sales and number of competitors. Sales of Sierra Outdoor Designs’ marine-grade, 316-stainless-steel kitchens grew 72% between 2016 and 2017, according to Haase. She says that, over the past four years the company has continually added components to the line to meet growing demand. Besides storage modules, says Haase, most customers include a grill, sideburner, sink and refrigerator in their outdoor kitchens, but components to hold pizza ovens, power burners, ceramic kamados, and deep fryers are also gaining traction.

Jeff Kozak, vice president of Sales – North America at Napoleon Grills, says, “We have seen 40% gains year-over-year for the past three years in sales of Napoleon Oasis modular outdoor kitchens, as well as a significant spike in the number of retailers carrying the line.” The gray-powder-coated, custom-configurable, modular system is positioned as a “mass premium” line, according to Kozak. “It is resonating with both consumers and dealers for its affordable luxury and the fact that it’s made in North America,” he says.

Outdoor furniture manufacturer Gensun Casual Living launched a line of modular outdoor kitchens five years ago and has experienced steady growth ever since. Their first line, the Paradise, featuring rope molding around the door faces for a traditional look, was well-received by its patio dealers, according to president & director of Marketing and Sales Jan Trinkley. But sales really took off last year when the company introduced outdoor kitchen kits in 11 predesigned configurations, and included the premade cast-aluminum countertops to go with them.

“Even a modular outdoor kitchen takes time to design,” says Trinkley. “Having a number of predesigned outdoor kitchen configurations as a starting point made it much easier for consumers to choose and retailers to sell.”

This year, the company added the Modano line with a more contemporary-transitional look, also available in 11 configurations, including L-shapes; islands with built-in grills, sideburners, beverage stations, fire pits and/or dining counters; and even an appliance-free, seating/serving island, just like in an indoor kitchen.

Consumers can choose from 23 different powder-coat colors for cabinet doors, and the Modano line has the option of using two contrasting colors on the door frames and panel inserts. It continues to offer individual modules for those who want complete customization. “We have great options whether the customer is looking to spend a few thousand dollars or five figures,” Trinkley says. “And they are able to coordinate their furniture and outdoor kitchen finish and design for an integrated look.”

Exterus custom outdoor kitchen by Forshaw.

Forshaw is another company that has worked to simplify the design process with its Exterus Express line of 12 stock, turnkey, outdoor kitchens. Forshaw’s National Sales manager Philip Chamberlain says dealers can guide customers through a simple three-step process to design their outdoor kitchen: 1) choose the appliances; 2) pick one of the 12 configurations; and 3) select a finish (various stone, tile or stucco is offered).

The modular components are joined together and the finish is applied at the customer’s home – a one-day process for an eight-ft. kitchen with two workers, according to Chamberlain. Retail prices start at $5,200. Forshaw’s Exterus outdoor kitchen cabinetry is also available by the individual module for completely customizable layouts.

Chamberlain says he has seen interest in outdoor kitchens growing all over the country every year, among everyone from first-time homebuyers to luxury homeowners. “People see this concept on vacation or at a hotel and they want to create it at home,” he says.

At the high end of the category is the Arcadia series by Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. The line comes standard in oiled Ipe wood, or charcoal-gray, powder-coated 304 stainless steel. Or customers may choose a custom look from one of more than 200 powder-coat colors, or even marine-grade, 316 stainless steel. Across the face of each cabinet, a four-board panel design creates a distinctive horizontal look. In addition to grill and appliance cabinet units, the line has 20 different storage and utility cabinets, in a range of widths up to 36 in. Pieces clip together for easy configuring, have leveling legs, snap-on toe-kicks, and are adjustable in height.

The Liberty line from DCS by Fisher & Paykel, is made of 304 stainless steel, with clean lines and a sleek aesthetic to complement indoor appliances, according to Monroy. Customers can custom-create a kitchen from various modules including grills, sink-and-sideburner, griddle-and-sideburner, refrigerator, back bar, and other units. There is also an option of a grill without a hood, a popular choice for balconies and homes with coastal views, because it doesn’t ruin sight lines, according to Monroy.

Slater’s Danver and Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens lines can be made from either 304 or 316 stainless steel, with the option of powder-coat finishes in multiple colors or woodgrain looks, and choice of numerous door designs. Last year, in collaboration with countertop maker Dekton by Cosentino, Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens introduced the ASA-D2. Designed by furniture designer Daniel Germani, the ultra- contemporary and unique outdoor kitchen has captured design awards and captivated interior designers.

Liberty modular outdoor component by DCS by Fisher & Paykel.

Who Is the Customer?

In fact, according to the experts, interior designers are increasingly being asked to create outdoor living spaces for clients who appreciate finer things and elevated design. Slater says his company works regularly with designers, architects, landscape architects, builders and contractors, and other specifiers, reaching them through presentations at builders’ shows and ASID meetings. “We’ve seen heavy growth in those channels,” he says. “We sell a lot to custom builders, but even production builders are embracing this concept and offering outdoor kitchens as upgrades. Builders that put modular outdoor kitchens in model homes, sell many.”

Slater says the modular outdoor kitchen trend started on the coasts – as many trends do – and is spreading from there. He says, currently, the biggest markets include California; along the East Coast from Washington D.C. north; Florida; the Pacific Northwest; and western and eastern Canada.

The concept is particularly popular in coastal regions, according to Haase. “We’re finding some customers in coastal areas are buying our products to replace other outdoor kitchens that rusted out in the salt spray of coastal environments,” she says. Faulk notes contemporary modular outdoor kitchens are also big in urban settings, where they are installed on balconies and as part of rooftop outdoor living spaces.

Besides the residential market, Slater says sales to luxury condo and rental complexes, as well as to branded, hotel-managed residential communities such as Ritz Carlton properties, have been growing. The company offers outdoor kitchens that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a necessity in communal settings.

Kozak says Napoleon also has found success working with builders who offer Oasis outdoor kitchens as an optional upgrade on new-construction homes. “It’s been a very popular optional amenity, and homebuyers can include it in their mortgage.”

Modano Grill & Fire Pit Island by Gensun.

Why Should a Retailer Sell?

Modular outdoor kitchens can help retailers become experts in the outdoor kitchen business, even if they’ve been hesitant before. “Selling traditional outdoor kitchens with doors and drawers can be intimidating for retailers,” says Kozak. “You either need talent on staff or good subcontractors. Modular outdoor kitchens offer a simpler, turnkey approach. And it’s a high-ticket category with high margins.”

Faulk says modular outdoor kitchens are a great fit for retailers because it’s easier to train the sales staff and equip them with a detailed understanding of the design and installation process. “They don’t need to develop an understanding of the masonry or construction trades,” he says. “It’s easier to design because you get to work with a system of components that are all meant to coordinate and fit together. It’s almost like building with Legos. You can be extremely creative without having to design the building blocks from scratch. And, without the need for subs, modular outdoor kitchens put a much greater portion of the outdoor kitchen budget in the hands of the retailer.”

“Hearth, patio and barbecue retailers and landscape architects have been really successful with our line,” adds Haase. “It works with any brand of grills the retailer sells. And since it ships knocked down, retailers can sell it as a DIY kit, or they can charge an assembly fee as another revenue source. Two people can assemble each module in about 30 minutes.”

According to Slater, “This concept is way easier for retailers. They can do 10 kitchens in the time it takes to do one masonry outdoor kitchen. And margins are higher so they can make more money. It makes so much sense and has a lot of growth potential for years to come.”

That stands to reason, since Millennials are being exposed to tricked-out rooftop outdoor living spaces in rental apartments and will want those outdoor living and entertaining amenities in their own homes, as they begin to buy them. Modular systems are also increasingly sought after by Baby Boomers downsizing into smaller homes or condos that will require high-quality but small-scale home elements and furnishings.

“An outdoor kitchen is an aspirational purchase and adds value, equity and enjoyment to a home,” says Kozak. “I’m confident the modular outdoor kitchen space will continue to grow.”

Modular outdoor kitchens offer high-end style, turnkey ease, and attractive profits.

Arcadia series by Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

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