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Hearth & Home October 2019

Photo: ©2019 Jamen Rhodes.
Landscape: Jeff Cambpell. Vision Scape team.
Builder: Alloy Homes. Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

What's Cooking in Canada?

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Canadian barbecue distributors talk trends and challenges.

In a country that spans more than 5,000 miles and six time zones, has a climate that ranges from temperate to arctic-like and snowy, and is home to an estimated 37 million people spread over dense cosmopolitan cities and sparsely populated rural communities, the barbecue business is as varied and disparate as Canada itself.

So, who better than distributors to offer insight into the barbecue category in the country? Calling on retailers throughout a broad region, or in some cases, nationally, provides distributors an unmatched perspective on outdoor cooking and living trends, what’s selling and what isn’t, what successful retailers are doing right, and the challenges they’re facing in the trenches.

Hearth & Home spoke with a number of Canadian barbecue distributors and other in-the-know insiders to get a peek into what’s happening in the category. According to these experts, climate and currency are two of the biggest factors shaping consumer attitudes toward and purchases of outdoor cooking and outdoor living products. Other issues tied to tariffs, cross-border shopping, regulations on natural-gas greenhouse gas emissions, and the economy in oil-producing regions, also are in play, or may be in the future.

Here’s what they had to say:

Gordon Flagler.

Gordon Flagler

manager, Cookstoves Canada
Orangeville, Ontario

In the seven years since Cookstoves Canada was founded as a sister company to 40-plus-year-old Canadian hearth distributor The Foundry, the outdoor cooking products distributor has, out of necessity, adapted in response to changes in the marketplace. Manager Gordon Flagler says, initially, the company “did extremely well” distributing high-end gas grills thanks to a strong Canadian dollar on par with the U.S. dollar. But, as the dollar declined (it is currently valued at approximately $.75 CAD to $1.00 USD), Cookstoves Canada dropped its pricey lines and sought out more competitively priced products.

Flagler says that while Canadian-made grills offer price advantages in the marketplace, the few domestic barbecue manufacturers typically have longstanding distributor relationships, making the lines unavailable to his company. “Unlike the hearth side of our business, with grills, we had to look elsewhere and import,” he says. “So, we took a risk and looked for fresh, compelling, value-priced, high-quality lines from newer manufacturers.”

Today, Cookstoves Canada distributes seven lines, including Saber Grills, Green Mountain Grills, Ooni Pizza Ovens, Everdure by Heston Blumenthal, UNA tabletop grills, Morsø Outdoor, and Infratech Heaters. “We are now positioned in the heart of the market with price points from $250 to $5,000,” Flagler says. “We have something for everyone in terms of price and fuels. The strategy has been very effective and we’ve had significant growth every year.”

The 4K models from Everdure by Heston Blumenthal.

 He says, “The barbecue business today is incredibly international. We are dealing with companies headquartered in Scotland, Holland, Denmark, and the U.S. Some of the product is produced in Asia. It’s a global industry today.” He says it is helpful that there is an “international influence in Canada” and “Canadians are pretty open to new things.”

Wood pellet cooking and pizza ovens are two “very strong trends,” according to Flagler. He says he has seen “huge growth” in sales of Green Mountain Grills and Ooni Pizza Ovens this year, and “steady” sales of gas-fueled Saber Grills. “With Saber the big thing we promote is that there are no flare ups. That’s important in our climate. We have hard-core Canadian barbecuers who cook out year-round, even when they have to shovel a path to the grill. But nobody wants to stand out in the cold to watch the grill for flare ups. We try to be cognizant of product features and benefits that are of specific interest to Canadian consumers.”

Another factor unique to Canada, according to Flagler, is a very high rate of second-home ownership. “A good percentage of second homes are not winterized so they’re not used year-round. As a result, a lot of people want portable stuff to take on the boat or store inside the cottage for the winter. We have short summers, so when the weather is good, people want to take advantage. It’s important (for dealers) to connect with the recreational leisure market.”

Flagler says this short summer season limits outdoor kitchen sales in his territory, and cart-based grills dominate. “Outdoor kitchens do better in more moderate climates,” he says.

He reports “an unbelievable change in attitude and sophistication” among Canadian retailers selling outdoor cooking products. “There were only a small number of specialty barbecue shops in Canada when we first started seven years ago, but there are really strong barbecue stores today,” Flagler says. “Even the hearth stores have stepped it up and added entire barbecue departments to create a significant, second selling season. We work with many smart, savvy retailers and we’re seeing tremendous growth in the barbecue business.”

The natural-gas regulations elsewhere in the country have not infiltrated the communities in Flagler’s territory, but he is monitoring the situation. “I don’t think propane will be impacted, but long term, there is a push in Canada to convert to electricity. There is very little electric (barbecue) product available today – it’s a really small market. There is potential, but no (manufacturer) has really jumped into the market.”

Flagler has observed a decline in the number of Canadian retailers attending the annual HPBExpo, an issue he attributes to currency rates. “It’s expensive to travel to the U.S.,” he says. “We have our own show for dealers and they rely on us to investigate Expo and trust our experience regarding taking on new products.”

John McAdams.

John McAdams

owner, Northwinds Marketing
Summerstown, Ontario

After nearly two decades as a hearth-shop owner and the largest retailer of Big Green Eggs in the Québec province, John McAdams bought the nationwide Big Green Egg Canada distributorship, Northwinds Marketing, in 2017. He recently relocated the company headquarters to a larger facility in Summerstown, Ontario, an aptly named spot for a barbecue company.

He says business was “tricky and kinda funky” this year, something he attributes to the chaos of the move and an unusually slow early summer. After a busy March and April, McAdams says the market was soft in May and June, but picked up again in July and August. He says bright spots included a 10% growth in the number of new dealers opened this year, and approximately 15% growth in charcoal fuel sales for the second year running.

McAdams says the trend of cooking over natural-lump charcoal is growing. “People like that it’s not push-button, but more interactive. It’s more mainstream to use charcoal today,” he says. “There are a lot of kamado competitors, but we are the original. The serious griller comes to us.  

“There is a growing trend of people adding a Big Green Egg as a second grill to the gas grill on the deck,” he continues. “They know gas grills are going to fail or rust and any grill with an electronic command center will fail eventually, so they appreciate that our grill is simple, stands the test of time, takes ten minutes to light, and is versatile enough to sear, smoke, bake, roast, or make a pizza.”

STIHL Timbersports event.

McAdams credits dealer growth to his eight “Eggbassadors” (a.k.a. salespeople) who offer support and training, conduct demos and classes, and connect with consumers through social media. He employed a novel approach to hiring the new salespeople. “I found four of these guys on Instagram,” he says. “They are ‘Eggheads’ who were always posting about the amazing things they were cooking, so I called them up and asked, ‘what do you do?’” One Instagrammer-turned-Eggbassador – a school teacher who works for McAdams during summer breaks and on weekends during the school year – grew sales 30 to 40% in the Maritimes region, according to McAdams. Another is a corrections officer who works 7 days on and 7 days off, and has opened up a host of new dealers in the Manitoba region.

“Eggheads who love the product are the best salespeople,” he says. “If you get the right people you can have real success. The same is true of retail salespeople; we tell our dealers to hire people who love the product.”

The company also has taken an out-of-the-box approach to targeting new dealers. Although specialty hearth, barbecue and pool dealers remain a key focus, the company has expanded to other channels like butcher shops, craft breweries, farm cooperatives, and western gear retailers. “Butchers are one of our biggest retail segments,” McAdams says. “And, craft breweries will put it on their deck and smoke food to eat with the beer. We’re getting a lot of placement and good exposure in these types of channels and they continue to develop for us. There are a lot of smart retailers selling eggs in atypical channels.”

He says restaurants have been another successful pathway to sales. “Our grills are NSF certified, so we try to get them into a restaurant kitchen and then try to open a retail dealer nearby,” he explains. “When people try the food in a restaurant, it leads to retail sales. The bridge between restaurant chefs and consumers is important; it’s like a third-party endorsement.”

David Rosvold

president, Northwest Stoves
Abbotsford, BC

“We’re experiencing huge growth in the pellet category,” says David Rosvold, president of Northwest Stoves, a distributor of hearth and outdoor living products, in British Columbia, Alberta and the Yukon territories. “Pellet grills have been around a long time, but people are just discovering them. It’s a good time to be in the pellet game and we are doing really well with Green Mountain Grills. They put us in a good spot and the fuel sales keep people coming back into the store. All signs are leading to continued growth in the pellet category.”

Rosvold says, besides hearth shops, he is seeing large gains in pellet grill sales in nontraditional channels. “Some of the biggest sellers are in the outdoor recreation channels, including pool and spa dealers, sports stores, and outdoor-enthusiast retailers,” he says. “Someone selling recreational vehicles is a fantastic pellet grill dealer. Turns out, many guys who ride ATVs and motorbikes also love outdoor cooking. When someone spends $10,000 on a motorbike, it doesn’t seem like much to spend another $1,000 on a grill. Same with someone who just bought a $15,000 hot tub; a spa dealer has no problem selling that person a $1,000 grill. Some of the traditional hearth dealers are used to selling barbecues on price and believe the barbecue customer won’t want to spend that kind of money. It’s not the case.”

Rosvold says sales have been flat in the gas grill market and are trending downward in charcoal kamado grills, a trend he attributes to “product lifecycle” and escalating prices tied to currency rates. “The grill that was $1,000, is now $1,400 or what was $1,800 is now $2,500, and people are not as willing to do that. There is a consumer mentality that $1,000 is the limit for a good grill, and I think that is hurting sales. In the consumer’s mind, they look at the retail price against the intrinsic value and may eliminate a grill based on price. There are gas grill companies out there reengineering product to keep the price stable.”

According to Rosvold, the Outdoor Room concept is starting to catch on in some areas, but cart-based grills outnumber built-ins by a wide margin in his territory. “One of our dealers in Vancouver does well with it, but most are not really strong in outdoor kitchens,” he says. “In our region, the only way you can achieve an outdoor living space is by creating an enclosure and installing outdoor heating and vent hoods. But, we are always looking at how we can grow our outdoor living product mix from a strategic standpoint, so we will continue to consider (more outdoor kitchen products).”

Currency rates and cross-border shopping are ongoing challenges faced by Rosvold and his dealer partners. “Because of the power of the Internet, a consumer will end up on a website from the U.S. and bring in a much lower price to show their local dealer (in Canada),” he explains. “I’m 10 minutes from the U.S. border. People here will cross the border and see a retail price of $999 in the U.S. and same product offered at $1,400 or $1,600 in Canada. Canadian dealers are constantly having to explain why their price is higher – the 30 to 35% exchange-rate difference, the duty, the freight. It confuses the marketplace and adds a level of complexity to the sale.”

He says the company’s most successful dealers are actively cooking on grills and regularly promoting on social media. “They’ll often have an employee who becomes the grill guru at the store. As a distributor, we need to make that grill guru an ambassador for our brands; someone who loves and is loyal to our product,” he says. “We regularly do barbecue lunches and training sessions for our dealers’ staff because salespeople are more likely to sell what they use and are comfortable with.”

Zack Fisher.

Zack Fisher

vice president of Sales Compact Appliances
Sackville, NB

“Sales are slightly down across the whole gas grill category in our area,” according to Zack Fisher of Compact Appliances, a distributor of hearth, barbecue and outdoor living products in the Atlantic region. “We had a very late start to the season in Atlantic Canada,” he says. “It was a very cold May and June and we didn’t see much activity until later. Dealers had brought in lots of inventory, but the sell-through was late. Once the season started, they moved grills, but it didn’t make up for lost time.

“Dealers are feeling the competition in the gas grill market – it’s as competitive as it’s ever been,” Fisher says. “Besides Big Box stores, there are lots of other channels now selling barbecue grills, including appliance dealers, pool and spa dealers, and more. Plus, online sales. There’s lots of competition out there.”

He says, while gas grill sales were “off,” pellet and charcoal grills had “substantial growth” this year. “We have been watching U.S. trends closely and added lines of pellet grills and charcoal kamados. “Kamados are well understood in this market, and pellet grills have taken off in the last couple years,” he says. “I think people who are buying pellet grills are passionate about trying something different.”

Historically, the company has done “very little” outdoor kitchen business due to harsh winters in the region. “We are still very heavily into carts,” says Fisher, “but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see more sales of high-end built-in grills.” He says, currently, consumers prefer custom masonry outdoor kitchen islands over modular outdoor cabinetry.

He says his dealers have really “stepped up their marketing game” in recent years. “Store cookouts and demos are at an all-time high, which is something we encourage as a company,” he says. “They are doing a great job on social media offering helpful tips and recipes, sharing photos of what they’re cooking, posting videos. A lot of the interest and awareness surrounding charcoal and pellet grills is driven through local social media. This is not being done with gas grills to the same extent.”

Amber Percival.

Amber Percival

president, Urban Hearth
Perth, Ontario

Despite a poor start to the year due to lingering winter weather, sales of outdoor products were up about 35%, according to Amber Percival, president of Urban Hearth, a distributor of Twin Eagles and Delta Heat grills, Firegear Outdoors fire pits and fireplaces, and Alfa pizza ovens, throughout Ontario.  

“We came to market differently this year; we added a new salesperson, so that freed up someone to focus on the outdoor side of the business,” Percival explains. “We have been selling outdoor products for eight years and the market is now catching up. Outdoor living is a growing trend. Customers are keen to buy product that will last and support the lifestyle.”

The company added Alfa pizza ovens to its product offerings this year, in response to increasing dealer demand over the past few years, according to Percival. “The line has been doing very well,” she says.

Percival says her company’s grill sales break out to 30% on carts and 7% built-ins for outdoor kitchens. “What we experience is different from other areas,” she says. “Because of the nature of the products and the price points we sell, we spend a lot of time targeting people who build outdoor kitchens. We have a few hearth and barbecue stores that offer outdoor kitchens, but we also work with a lot of award-winning landscapers and designers for whom the outdoor kitchen is part of an entire big project.

“One issue we are facing is that there are very few people in our territory who have the skill set to design and build outdoor kitchens,” she says. “The best dealers in our market offer soup to nuts services – from design to ongoing maintenance after the build. But, many of our dealers are understaffed and lack people with the confidence and ability to design an Outdoor Room.”

Example of an Alfa Oven Demonstration.

Percival calls turnkey modular outdoor kitchens “fantastic options from companies that can also help dealers with design support,” but says most homeowners in the region remain interested in stone finishes. “We have a huge cottage-home market – it’s all lakes here – and people lean to rustic stone finishes, even if they want a modern look. Masonry is still an expertise that’s required.”

She says outdoor cooking is going through a “renaissance,” fueled in part by exposure on social media. “Bloggers are tremendous influencers and show what’s possible,” she says. “Today, a wood-burning pizza oven, a teppanyaki grill, and a high-end gas grill might all be included in an outdoor kitchen – and may even all be used during the same party. People are connecting to food in a different way. They don’t just make a burger. They get the meat from a local farmer, grind it themselves, season and cook it in a special way, and then photograph it, and share it online.”

She says today’s consumers are “eager foodies” and successful dealers connect with them by partnering with local experts such as farmers, foragers, and chefs. “They can teach customers stuff like how to make homemade sourdough bread in the pizza oven,” she says. “You want to reach the people who are cooking brisket from a local farmer while drinking a craft brew, and want to share about the experience on social media.

“Canadians are notoriously passionate about being outdoors,” she continues. “No one builds an Outdoor Room to sit in it alone. People who are successful at it are selling to that desire to cook great food and connect with family and friends to have experiences and make memories.”

Although Percival hasn’t had to contend with the natural-gas legislation challenging other areas of the country, she says, “It’s not uncommon for big cities like Montréal and Toronto to follow suit, so we need to stay aware of that.”

She says the biggest challenge hearth and barbecue dealers face today is staffing. “It’s hard to find skilled workers, and dealers often don’t have enough staff with the skills to train people. Dealers are stuck feeling like they can sell the equipment, but it’s hard to pull off a turnkey, one-stop, design-build type of sale. It’s a huge problem. The industry could do more with training on the outdoor side.”

She says, due to the unfavorable dollar exchange rate, Canadian retailers have difficulty sending staff to HPBExpo to access training. “The challenge is how to get people who can’t travel to the show, engaged and trained?” she says. “We are considering gathering people who’ve had success in the Outdoor Room to offer hands-on training to our dealers. I’ve even considered developing a training program open to any dealer, because it would lift the whole business up.”

Urban Hearth’s Sales manager Colleen Zedo cooking on the Twin Eagles 36-inch Grill.

More on Cross-Border Shopping and Trade Issues

According to “eMarketer Retail,” 90% of the Canadian population lives within 100 miles of the U.S. border, making cross-border shopping pilgrimages commonplace for many years. The trends newsletter reports that, now however, due to greater availability of comparable, domestically produced goods, and a decrease in value of the Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar, cross-border shopping is not always a cost-savings endeavor.

The Internet has eliminated the need to physically cross the border to access goods. According to the 2018 “PayPal Cross-Border Consumer Research Study,” 37% of Canadian digital buyers shopped from domestic sites only, suggesting the majority of shoppers are digitally crossing the border to shop. The International Post Corporation’s 2018 “Cross-Border E-Commerce Shopper Survey,” shows 53% of Canadian digital buyers bought goods from the U.S. and 30% bought from China.

However, a study from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority found that the value of the purchase influenced the origin of the transaction site. For goods less than $100, Canadian online shoppers were more likely to purchase from a U.S. site, but when the order was greater than $500, digital buyers purchased from a Canadian site.

According to “eMarketer Retail,” the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement also is likely to impact cross-border e-commerce trade. The new agreement raises the duty-free threshold value of goods entering Canada from $20 to $150 CAD, and raises the tax-free threshold from $20 to $40 CAD. The Retail Council of Canada predicts this will have a negative impact on domestic online retail sales in Canada, but says overall, “retailers in Canada dodged a bullet,” given the U.S. initially requested the threshold be raised to $800 USD.  

There also has been fallout from America’s trade conflicts this year. The U.S. Census Bureau reports imports of Canadian goods to the U.S. declined by $1.8 billion in the first half of 2019.

John Crouch.

Potential Impact of Natural-Gas Regulations

As an attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the use of fossil fuels, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, has enacted pioneering legislation restricting the use of natural-gas in new construction. While the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) has been primarily focused on the legislation’s impact on the hearth industry, John Crouch, director of Public Affairs for HPBA, cautions that there is the “potential for some nasty business” on the barbecue side, too.

“I think one key element of the Vancouver (legislation) is the greenhouse gas ‘budget’ for new, large homes,” he says. Crouch explains that each residence will have a budget capping the amount of permissible greenhouse gas emissions created by the home’s systems and appliances. At this point, he says the budget would accommodate a furnace, a water heater, and choice of either a gas fireplace or a gas cooking appliance.

“So, if you wanted two gas cooking appliances, such as a gas stove inside, and a nice gas grill outside, you would have to drop one of the other items, (such as) the fireplace, or go all electric with your hot water, or put in a heat pump,” Crouch says. “Same goes for hearth products. If you wanted a gas fireplace inside, and another one outside, you have to go all electric somewhere else. Due to the emissions ‘budget,’ if someone wanted an outdoor kitchen (fueled by natural-gas) in their new house, they would either have to sacrifice gas in the indoor kitchen, or, scrap the fireplace.” 

Crouch and HPBA Canada president Laura Litchfield emphasize that these restrictions apply only to natural-gas lines in the context of new construction. “Only grills that are ‘plumbed’ or hooked up to the natural-gas line are included in the greenhouse gas emissions cap calculation,” says Litchfield. “Grills using propane are not included.”

Oil and gas fracking rig in Alberta, Canada.

Still, this is a potentially concerning issue for the barbecue industry in Canada and elsewhere. The fact that Outdoor Rooms often include multiple cooking appliances, as well as hearth elements and patio heaters, makes natural-gas an attractive and appealing alternative to lugging, monitoring and refilling numerous propane tanks. Crouch asks: “Could this become a trend? Yes; although we have not seen it anywhere else (in Canada), so far.”

While Vancouver has been at the forefront of the legislation in Canada, in July, the city of Berkeley, California also banned the installation of natural-gas lines in new construction as part of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for safety reasons in case of an earthquake. A similar ban in Menlo Park, California takes effect in January 2020. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 50 other California communities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Rosa, are reportedly considering some form of natural-gas ban.

Forbes calls this a “national trend,” citing a new law in Maine that reduces natural-gas use in new buildings, and New Jersey’s proposed Energy Master Plan that eliminates natural-gas use in new buildings by 2030. Eight other states have established 100% electricity goals.

Crouch says while other cities contemplating legislation may not ban natural-gas lines in new construction outright, they could enact greenhouse gas “offset fees,” making it costlier to use gas. He says potential new legislation will also likely require that the house have a dedicated electric circuit run to every gas appliance in the house, making it ready to switch over to electricity someday.

“Right now, the only group of manufacturers interested in this issue are the hearth folks,” says Crouch. “I’m sure they would welcome some help from the serious outdoor kitchen companies, as well.”

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