The Cajun Comeback
By Lisa Readie Mayer
PhotoS: ©2019 zoom photo studio. www.zoomphotostudio.com.
Ray Guidry designed and built a charcoal grill in 1963 as a birthday gift for his dad Percy, the hardworking owner of an ironworks business founded in 1945 in Louisiana’s Cajun country. The younger Guidry envisioned the grill as a hub around which good food and family memories would be made. But as the gift was presented, Percy, a self‑taught craftsman and self‑made businessman who was born in 1910 and had lived through the Great Depression, chastised his son, saying, “You mean to tell me you used a brand new $10 sheet of steel to build this grill?”
Little did he know, that while Ray was working on his dad’s grill outside their shop, it caught the attention of a passing motorist. Impressed by the unique design, durable materials, and quality workmanship, the customer ordered two on the spot. The Cajun Grill was born.
Sales grew locally throughout the ’60s, thanks to word‑of‑mouth referrals and an eye‑catching display outside the Percy Guidry Company retail shop in Lafayette, Louisiana. Along with the grills, the store sold ornamental iron fencing, railings, gates, andirons, and other items fashioned in ornate, New Orleans‑style artistry. By the 1970s, the business diversified and the Guidrys started offering wrought‑iron patio furniture. The company then added fireplaces and stoves, evolving into a full‑fledged hearth and patio shop in the late ’80s.
By then, The Cajun Grill had a solid reputation and steady sales in the region. So much so, that when grandsons Keith and Gregg Guidry got into the family business, they figured charcoal grillers in the rest of the country would probably like it too. In 1993, they launched The Cajun Grill at the HPBExpo in Nashville to an enthusiastic response.
“It was a quality, charcoal grill, made in America of heavy‑duty, black‑painted steel. It stood out in a predominately gas grill market and attracted a lot of attention,” recalls Gregg Guidry, who today co‑owns Percy Guidry Companies with his siblings. (Gregg oversees the manufacturing division, Keith runs the retail operation, and Suzanne Guidry Rudasill manages the office.)
The Cajun Grill took off. According to Gregg, sales grew 50% annually for seven years running. “At our high point we had a base of 150 dealers and three distributors,” he says. “We were gaining market share and moving volume. We were so busy we were struggling to keep up with production.”
The forward trajectory came to a halt around 2000, according to Gregg. “We had tried to keep our price down – it was around $499 initially,” he says. “But, then, that price point got infiltrated by Chinese gas imports at Big Box stores. The competition put a lot of independent retail stores out of business – including many of our dealers – and business really fell off. Since then, we’ve mainly just been selling the grill through a few remaining dealers and in our own store.”
|PGI 100SS Super Cajun Grill.|
Cajun Grill 2.0
But while The Cajun Grill might have dropped out of sight, it was never out of mind for the Guidrys. The family recently re‑launched the line, revamping and upgrading the original model, and introducing an advanced, fully‑featured, premium unit. Guidry says the grills offer more surface area than most charcoal grills and kamados, are virtually indestructible, and come with lifetime warranties. Optional features include a stainless‑steel griddle, a rotisserie, and an inset to hold a Dutch oven, cast‑iron pot, or wok. “These grills are built solid, like tanks,” he says. “They’re very versatile. You can do direct high‑heat grilling, indirect grilling, low‑and‑slow barbecuing, smoking, and roasting. You can also cook stews, chili, gumbo, red beans and rice – you name it.”
Based on the original design, the new‑and‑improved Super Cajun Grill ($1,999 retail) is made of 304‑stainless steel and includes a height‑adjustable charcoal tray, adjustable air vents, commercial‑grade thermometer, removable ash pan for easy clean‑out, and a four‑legged base.
The company’s brand‑new, top of the line Cajun Preaux Series ($1,799 for the grill head, $2,898 for a cart model), sports a more contemporary design. The 304‑stainless‑steel grill has large vents in the base and lid to adjust air flow to achieve a wide range of heat and smoke levels. It has two independently controlled charcoal trays in the base that can be set at different proximities to the grilling grid to allow cooking with different techniques or temperatures simultaneously.
Vents and controls are positioned at the front of the grill on the Cajun Preaux Series, lending an industrial look and enabling it to be built into an outdoor kitchen. “The outdoor kitchen category is really growing, so a built‑in application was absolutely needed,” Gregg explains. He estimates that 30% to 40% of Cajun Preaux Grills are currently sold as built‑ins, but he expects that number to grow as the brand gains distribution.
The Cajun Preaux Grill cart model comes with caster wheels, two folding side shelves, and two storage drawers in the base. Gregg says the grill can be easily converted to a built‑in by removing the head from the base with two screws, or removing the shelves and sliding the entire cart‑based unit into an island surround.
“This grill lasts a lifetime and the look complements a gas grill, so it would be perfect in an outdoor kitchen,” he adds. “The dealer can sell this as a second grill along with a gas grill. We’ve had a lot of interest already.
“People have called it a sexy grill,” he continues. “It’s solid, well‑built, and has a unique look. It’s elegant and beautiful enough for a fancy outdoor kitchen, and it also has a lot of mechanisms that appeal to a large chunk of the population.” But unlike the digital control pads, Wi‑Fi enabled apps, and other high‑tech features increasingly found on smart grills today, these “mechanisms” are simple, intuitive, and manually controlled.
“A lot of people want to go back to the basics,” says Gregg. “They don’t want to deal with an auger and Wi‑Fi. They want to control the temperature with airflow, not a complicated keypad. Some people are into technology, but when it comes to people who really love to cook and love the process of cooking, they want easy‑to‑use controls and they want to do it themselves. They like to play with the fire, and enjoy stoking it. It’s an event, a kind of therapy. It’s about relaxing and enjoying the process; enjoying the food; enjoying the day with your family. It’s a gourmet cooking experience, and tending the fire is part of that experience.”
|Cajun Preaux Grill & Cart.|
The Time Is Right for a Re‑launch
Gregg says the timing is perfect for the line’s re‑introduction. “For one, the concept of live‑fire cooking is a growing trend,” he explains. “There’s a romance about cooking with fire, and it gets a lot of coverage in food magazines and on television cooking shows. People have experienced wood‑fired cooking in restaurants and want to try it at home. There is a smoky nuance from cooking over a hardwood charcoal fire that you’re not going to get on a gas grill or even a pellet grill. People who want to bring their cooking to a higher level gravitate to wood or charcoal.”
He believes there is an unfilled niche in the marketplace for a premium charcoal grill. “Our grills are made in the U.S. of all 304-stainless steel, and the price points are where dealers and distributors can make good margins,” Gregg says. “We hope to be the Rolls Royce of charcoal grills and smokers and have a plan for a whole line extension of other high‑end products.”
As retailers themselves, the Guidrys have a unique insight into what dealers and consumers are looking for. In fact, they’ve used their own store as a de facto focus group to test prototypes and get customer feedback. “We cook on the grills at the store for customers and have made modifications based on their suggestions,” Gregg says. “We have taken our time to get it right and ready for consumers.”
Another reason for going national with their line: It’s an opportunity to expand sales beyond their financially‑strapped region. “A significant percentage of our population has left and moved to Texas for work because of oil field restrictions in the state of Louisiana,” Gregg explains. “Our area is in an economic downturn and it’s affected our company. Since we sell high‑end, luxury items that people don’t need, it’s been tough for the last five years. With this line, we won’t have to be dependent on just our local economy.”
The new Cajun Grills will officially debut at the HPBExpo in Dallas this March. The Guidrys are bringing the grills to market through two‑step distribution. The first distributor to sign on – Cunningham Gas Products – will handle a four‑state region in and around Texas.
“When we learned that the Guidry family was bringing back The Cajun Grill in a new and improved design, while remaining with U.S. manufacturing, we were very excited,” says owner Jeff Cunningham. “After they came by and gave a terrific demonstration for our staff, I was sure we wanted to continue building our relationship with their family and this line.
“We have been personal friends with the Guidry family for over two decades,” Cunningham continues. “They have been an important part of the hearth industry for a long time. The family is known, loved, and respected by practically everyone in the industry. There is something about their sincerity and warmth that almost instantly makes you feel like a friend. Our outside sales folks have been really talking it up. Our dealers are very excited and looking forward to receiving their first shipments.”
Though Gregg Guidry says their main focus is on specialty dealers, the grills are also being sold online, at MAP pricing, through BBQGuys.com. “I’d like to just be in brick‑and‑mortar, but some consumers prefer to shop online, for convenience, I guess,” Gregg says. “Other people want to see and touch a product before they buy. Both channels are important.”
|The Guidry brothers pose with Willie Robertson in front of their Preaux Grill & Cart.|
Getting the Message Out
The Guidrys are actively using social media to build awareness about The Cajun Grill. In addition to the brand’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, the grills star in a syndicated cooking show Keith Guidry hosts with Curt Guillory called “Grillin’ with the Gurus.” The show airs weekly on KDCG‑TV in Lafayette, Louisiana, and episodes are available on‑demand on the station’s website, YouTube, and Facebook, where it already has more than 1,300 followers. “They cook on our grills and it helps to build excitement by showing the products in use,” says Gregg Guidry. There is also a Cajun Grill blog, and an owners’ online forum.
The Guidrys are hoping the endorsement of television’s Robertson family, of Duck Dynasty fame, will help fast‑track awareness. The connection to the reality‑show stars came about when Keith emailed Willie Robertson to share the story of the Guidry business history and point out the similarities between the two families.
“We have a lot in common on a religious and personal level, and we knew we would hit it off,” says Gregg. “Like us, they are Southern, have a strong faith, and a love of family, the outdoors, good food, cooking, and hunting. Willie gets hundreds of emails a week – why did he pick ours? It was a blessing.”
That blessing included an invitation for Gregg and Keith to visit Willie and his family. The Guidrys brought along a grill and cooked up a Cajun feast. The extended Robertson family was so impressed with the unique, American‑made cooker and the food it produced, that several members now own Cajun Grills.
The two families have remained in regular contact, according to Gregg. Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the clan, even invited the Guidrys for a return visit and cooking lesson. “(Phil’s wife) Miss Kay said, ‘Phil was never a big barbecue guy, but now he cooks on the grill all the time,’” says Gregg. “He’s planning to produce a segment about cooking on The Cajun Grill on his new show ‘In the Woods with Phil.’” The program airs on CRTV, a digital, subscription‑based network dedicated to conservative programming. Robertson’s show has 1.3 million subscribers and Facebook followers, and segments typically rack up hundreds of thousands of views.
“We hope to convey that this is a grill the whole family can congregate around and enjoy,” says Gregg. “We hope the exposure will help us grow into the premiere line of charcoal grills and smokers.”