Fueled by Passion
By Lisa Readie Mayer
According to the dictionary, the word “premier” means “the best.” That is precisely what Premier Grilling is striving to be – the best barbecue retail operation in the USA.
The Dallas-area business was founded by lifelong friends Dan Ferguson, Jason Mohl, and Brian Rush. The three had successful careers in the mortgage industry, but lived for the weekends spent grilling and barbecuing for family and friends in each other’s backyards.
When the mortgage business collapsed in the economic recession of 2008, each of the men was laid off. The three friends saw the unfortunate event as an opportunity to reboot.
“People used to tell us we should open a restaurant,” says Ferguson. “We knew we wanted to leave the corporate world to do our own thing, and if we could find a way to make a living cooking, hanging out, having fun, and doing something we loved, we were all in.”
They found a way to do just that. In 2009, they pooled their money and started a business designing outdoor kitchens and backyard living spaces for homeowners, builders, and landscape architects, and selling the grills and equipment they specified in the designs.
“We opened in a closet-sized office in a converted house in downtown Frisco (Texas),” Ferguson recalls. “For the first six months we mainly worked out of a laundromat because it had free Wi-Fi. It was risky to open a business during the rock-bottom of the recession, but we figured there was only one way to go and that was up. We believed our passion, enthusiasm, and excitement for the industry would lead us to success.”
The business partners realized their clients needed a one-stop-shop showroom to better envision outdoor living possibilities and to select appliances and elements for backyard projects. So, in 2012, the trio opened a 4,500 sq. ft. outdoor-living retail store and showroom in Plano, Texas, stocked with everything a tricked-out backyard might need.
Initially, the partners enjoyed steady growth, but then inexplicably, sales plateaued. By 2015, they knew they needed to do something to jump-start their business, and once again tapped into the enthusiasm that inspired them to found it in the first place.
“We made a strategic decision to start hiring people who were passionate about outdoor grilling and cooking, not just good salespeople,” says Ferguson. “You can teach people how to sell, but you can’t teach them passion for the industry. Our business is about embracing the outdoor lifestyle and the experience of outdoor cooking; it’s not just about selling grills and hitting numbers.”
Today, the company is made up of people who passionately love to grill. The employees live the lifestyle, walk the walk and talk the talk; some are even on competition teams. They have been known to stop by on their days off to hang out and chat with customers about what they’ve cooked or plan to cook. “You can’t fake that kind of sincerity or passion,” Ferguson says.
None of the employees at Premier Grilling’s three stores (in addition to the Plano location, there are stores in Frisco and McKinney) is paid on commission or incentivized with spiffs (a monetary bonus paid by a manufacturer to push a product). “We sell what the customer needs, not what we want to sell them,” says Ferguson. “We want customers to always leave happy and satisfied.”
Some customers were so happy and satisfied, in fact, that they actually started working for the company. Case in point: Glen Fountain. He purchased a grill at the Plano store in 2015 and joined the team as a consultant that same year. He became a co-owner and CEO in January 2016. “I’ve had a blast ever since,” he says.
Fountain, who previously specialized in growing tech startups, has a diverse business background that includes experience in digital commerce, retail, and construction. He has been instrumental in propelling Premier Grilling to the next level. Year-over-year revenue increased 109% in 2016, was up 42% in 2017, and is expected to be up by 36% this year. By 2019, Premier Grilling’s annual sales are predicted to exceed $20 million.
A Broad Spectrum of Business Segments
The company has diversified into multiple key business areas, including brick‑and‑mortar retail sales, outdoor kitchen design‑build services, plus cooking classes, wholesale distribution, e‑commerce, and service.
The outdoor kitchen business, on which Premier Grilling was originally founded, is thriving. Ferguson says the company’s three construction crews regularly work on eight to nine projects a week in season, and to date, have completed over 1,000 outdoor kitchens.
All projects are custom and start with a site visit to discuss the customer’s wish list, assess the space, and take photos. After the meeting, the salesperson uploads photos, notes, and rough sketches to an in‑house team that uses a CAD program to create a design proposal. “We have a very fast turnaround on quotes and designs – usually 24 to 48 hours,” says Fountain. “We create plans that bring our customers’ dreams to life.”
He says those dreams increasingly include large, lavish, and customized spaces featuring outdoor kitchen islands with multiple built-in appliances; fireplaces or fire pits; televisions; and comfortable furnishings. “The family kitchen and dining table has moved outside along with the mess and heat,” Fountain says. “The outdoor living space is where the family unit gathers today. It’s a definite trend.”
In addition to working with homeowners directly, the company has a robust corporate sales division that targets homebuilders, pool builders, and other trades. “The construction boom in Texas is insane right now,” Fountain says. “In new construction, people used to dump money into media rooms and other spaces inside the house, but over the last few years, the trend is to allocate money to outdoor spaces.
“Builders provide the pad outside the back door and send the homeowners to us to create a custom outdoor living area. We work hand-in-hand with builders on where to run utilities, so the day the home closes, we can start transforming the backyard. Builders like the service we provide and feel comfortable handing off the project to us.”
Upon completion, Premier Grilling hosts a demonstration party in the Outdoor Room for the homeowners and their neighbors. “By the time we’re done, all the neighbors want one – and usually a bigger one,” says Fountain.
On the retail side, Premier Grilling stocks a vast selection of gas, charcoal, infrared, and pellet grills, smokers, ceramic kamados, and pizza ovens from a number of brands at a wide range of price points. The business also carries refrigerators, kegerators, bar centers, and other outdoor kitchen components; outdoor fireplaces, fire pits and patio heaters; and a comprehensive offering of charcoal, cooking woods, tools, accessories, sauces, seasonings, and other gear.
“We are a one-stop-shop for outdoor living and cooking,” says Fountain. “We are continually bringing in new products to keep the merchandise exciting and fresh.”
He says pellet grills are the stores’ fastest-growing category. “They are fantastic for our industry because they allow anyone to put out great food,” Fountain explains. “Ten years ago, pellet grills didn’t (perform as well), but the manufacturing and technology have come a long way. Ceramic kamado grills have always been great and will always be popular, but pellet grills are easier to use and are not intimidating. And you can get one for a comparatively low price. When people get pellet cooking down, they are ready to move up to live-fire cooking on ceramic grills. We’re seeing customers buying a ceramic grill after they’ve owned a pellet grill; it used to be the other way around.”
In keeping with the adage that everything is bigger in Texas, at 8,000 sq. ft., Premier Grilling’s Frisco store is one of the largest specialty barbecue stores in the country. The company’s soon-to-open Southlake store, on the west side of Dallas, will be a similar size. Each of the other two locations is between 4,500 and 5,000 sq. ft.
The stores are supported by a busy service and repair division, with multiple trucks on the road. The business is an authorized warranty service provider for a number of grill brands, and also offers grill-cleaning and maintenance services. In addition, the company acts as a wholesale distributor for several brands.
According to Fountain, Premier Grilling’s e-commerce sales division has grown “exponentially” over the past two years. The company sells through its own website with online orders filled and shipped out of the company’s 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse. It’s an exclusive, authorized Amazon seller of some of the products it carries.
Fountain says although the Internet is becoming an important sales channel, it also brings challenges. The company has dealt with counterfeiters leeching onto some of the products for which it has exclusive sales rights on Amazon. He says another troublesome issue is when manufacturers sell product on Amazon but, through a practice known as “brand gating,” restrict or prevent dealers from selling that brand’s products on the marketplace.
“Manufacturers let you sell their product on your own website, but lock you out of Amazon because they are selling on Amazon,” Fountain explains. “They ostensibly sell it at the retail price, but in reality, with Prime, consumers can have it delivered free in two days, they’re not paying sales tax, and Amazon will assemble it free using a third-party assembly service.
“A customer will say, ‘I’d like to buy this grill from you, but you’re charging me assembly, delivery, and sales tax, and I can get it for less online.’ We don’t make money on those charges, but they cover our expenses. If we give (assembly and delivery services) away free, we lose money.
“Some manufacturers are using (our stores) as showrooms to see and touch the products, and our trained employees to educate consumers,” he continues. “Some manufacturers are being greedy and are competing against us. They will put mom-and-pop retailers out of business. We have dropped lines because of it, and have formed a coalition of other dealers to litigate over it.”
The animosity does not carry over to consumers who need help with product bought online. “If we can take care of it we will, no matter where they bought,” says Fountain. “Once they come to our store and experience our service, culture, and employees, we’re confident we’ll develop a relationship with them and they’ll buy from us and take our classes.”
Cooking classes, in fact, have become an increasingly important part of the business, according to Fountain. Classes take place at the Frisco store in a 75-seat classroom with large windows that front the sales floor so shoppers can check out the action. Classes are usually held twice a week, with tuition ranging from $25 to $149 per class, or $499 for an annual VIP pass for unlimited classes. Besides instruction, food, and fun, attendees receive a 10% discount on after-class purchases (grills excluded).
Classes are taught by the store’s two professionally trained, in-house chefs, as well as a rotating roster of guest instructors that includes some of the country’s top restaurant grilling chefs and barbecue pitmasters. Once-a-week evening classes focus on grilling basics, while the “Saturday Chef Series” is geared to more seasoned enthusiasts and covers topics such as Big Green Egg 101, grilling the Thanksgiving dinner, and competition-style barbecue.
The classroom also is available for private parties, corporate team-building, meetings and events, with Premier Grilling providing the chefs, demo instruction, and food.
The retailers invest extensively in marketing to build awareness around their brand and excitement in their stores. An in-house marketing department creates all advertising, social media, videos, point-of-sale materials, and promotional flyers, bag-stuffers, and more.
The team utilizes traditional marketing tools including print and direct-mail advertising, commercials on sports-radio stations, participation in local charity events, and weekly emails to its comprehensive customer database. Also effective is text-message marketing, and a company-website “hotline” continually monitored by a staffer who fields questions on everything from equipment to techniques.
This year, Premier Grilling installed between 10 and 14 high-tech television monitors throughout each store, running in-house-created content that promotes products, classes, outdoor-kitchen construction, grill cleaning, and other services, on a continuous loop.
Its latest and most unconventional effort is a large box truck mounted with video screens on three sides. The screens play Premier Grilling’s advertising and promotional videos while the truck drives on area roadways or parks in visible locations, such as Dallas Cowboys’ pre-game tailgates at AT&T Stadium. “It’s incredible,” he says. “We’ve been running the truck about six months and get calls all the time from people saying they saw it. It attracts a lot of attention.”
But, despite the try-anything attitude toward marketing and promotions, Fountain and Ferguson say the real secret to success is back-to-basics staff training. Each store has a weekly food budget so salespeople can take turns cooking lunch for the staff every day, using one of the 35 different burn units. “It’s important to demo for customers, but it’s just as important that our employees learn to cook different foods on all the grills we carry,” says Fountain. “They take it seriously and it gets very competitive. They even post what they’re cooking to Instagram under ‘#pglunchtime’ so customers can follow.”
For more in-depth practice, Premier Grilling’s “library” program allows employees to borrow a burn unit for a month. “Our delivery trucks do musical grills all the time,” Fountain says. “We believe you have to really know the products to sell them. Our employees have a real interest in learning about the brands we carry and are committed to improving their outdoor cooking skills. It’s like Apple geeks becoming employees at the Apple store – that is our exact model. Our employees feel like they work in a toy store. We hear all the time from our manufacturers and reps that we have the best sales training there is.
“A visit to our stores is an experience; you can clearly see we love what we do,” he continues. “It’s about the cooking and the fun – and, we gotta sell some stuff to pay bills. It’s the American dream and the reason we’re successful. This is proof that you can love what you do and make a good living doing it.”
Store Name: Premier Grilling
Owners: Dan Ferguson, Jason Mohl, Brian Rush, Glen Fountain
Key Executives: Glen Fountain, CEO
Year Established: 2009
Web Site: www.premiergrilling.com
Phone: (855) 744-7455
Number of Stores: Three
Number of Employees:
Gross Annual Sales: Approximately $20 million
Sq. Ft. of Building Space: