Creating Kitchens, Outdoors
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Ryan Bloom doesn’t particularly like the term “outdoor kitchen.” The co-founder and president of Urban Bonfire, a company that designs and manufactures modular cabinetry systems for outdoor use, prefers to call it “a kitchen outdoors.” The distinction, he says, elevates an outdoor kitchen to its rightful status on par with an indoor kitchen.
“Our mission is to reverse the terms,” Bloom says. “When individuals are buying or renovating a home, they spend considerable time on every detail of the indoor kitchen design, yet the outdoor kitchen is usually an afterthought. Why has a stucco or stone island – which is essentially a block of unusable space without much storage or functionality – become the accepted norm outside? Our product is not ‘an outdoor kitchen,’ it’s a kitchen for cooking and entertaining, that happens to be outside.”
Others, it seems, are coming around to his way of thinking. Last March, the International Furnishings & Design Association awarded Urban Bonfire the “Best in Show: Kitchens” prize at the 2019 Architectural Digest show in New York City. “We were considered in the same category as the indoor kitchen products and are honored to have won,” says Bloom. “Our greatest success is when we are compared to indoor cabinets.”
It’s not a stretch. Urban Bonfire’s modular cabinets look and function like indoor cabinetry, and come in a variety of open and closed shelving units, drawer units, trash pull-outs, and other storage options. The line’s innovative backsplash system mirrors the look of an indoor-kitchen backsplash, and provides a way to incorporate herb planters, while also serving as a protective barrier when placed against a house or fence.
The components are designed to stand up to the elements. Made from durable, hand-welded, powder-coated, marine-grade aluminum, with 304 stainless-steel drawer slides, door hinges, and other interior hardware, they come with a 10-year warranty. The cabinetry also features integrated, self-leveling toe kicks that sit flat on irregular surfaces, and are compatible with all major brands of grills and outdoor appliances.
Perhaps what is unique about the line, however, is how Bloom and Stefan Marchant, Urban Bonfire’s co-founder and head of Design, have streamlined and simplified the design and installation process, while still providing opportunities for people to customize their kitchens.
Ryan Bloom, co-founder and president.
Stefan Marchant, co-founder and head of Design.
Ashley Smith, senior Account manager.
The process starts with the dealer gathering information about how the customer wants to cook and entertain outdoors. After determining which appliances to include, the customer then selects the configuration of their outdoor kitchen from several popular layouts, or he/she can work with the dealer to create a custom layout. Customers can choose from four exterior finishes, door-handle styles, and colors (custom upgrades also are available for an additional cost), and can even order a solid-surface countertop in a number of colors and designs.
Selections are forwarded to Urban Bonfire designers who create a 3-D rendering of the kitchen. Upon approval, the entire customized kitchen is fabricated and delivered in four to six weeks, and can be assembled and installed in a matter of hours.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Bloom and Marchant created their modular cabinetry system to fill a need they encountered as owners of a barbecue retail store, also called Urban Bonfire, in Montréal. After realizing most of their customers wanted built-in outdoor kitchens, the partners sought a practical and easily implementable solution for getting into the game. With minimal experience in the construction trades, building custom masonry islands was not in the retailers’ wheelhouse, and they wanted to avoid the hassle of ping-ponging between subs. They felt existing brands of prefab islands or modular outdoor kitchens offered limited design and installation support for the dealer, and too few customization opportunities for the consumer.
So, Marchant, a professional engineer, began designing outdoor kitchens for customers, having the powder-coated aluminum cabinetry fabricated locally. The kitchens’ modern design and practical functionality appealed to the store’s clients, and its turnkey assembly was a boon to the small, short-staffed retailer. Before long, the store’s outdoor kitchen business had outpaced its traditional retail sales, 85% to 15%.
Figuring other independent retailers might have a similar need, Bloom and Marchant closed the retail side of their business and launched Urban Bonfire Modular Outdoor Kitchens nationally at the 2018 HPBExpo. Their former store is now a showroom and meeting space where the company’s dealers come to visit, learn about the product, and train.
Urban Bonfire custom outdoor bar and entertainment center, and countertop planters shown in Onyx with white bronze handles. Features Hestan Beer Tapper, Glass Door Refrigerator, Ice Maker, and Refreshment Center. Dekton countertop in Zenith.
Changing the Paradigm
Historically, according to Bloom, it has been easier for small, independent retailers to sell only the grills and appliances for outdoor kitchens, and leave the project’s design and execution to others. “Previously, you needed a designer, a contractor, a mason, and other subs to create an outdoor kitchen,” says Bloom. “The entire process is lengthy and subject to the subs’ schedules and weather delays, which limits the number of projects retailers can work on in a year. We understand the challenges independent retailers face because we experienced them as retailers ourselves. With this line, we have made a very fragmented category simple and turnkey.
“We tell specialty retailers that our system is not a ‘project,’ it is a ‘product,’” he says. “You have our professional design team working with you to create the design. You don’t need to coordinate multiple subs to build the frame and finish it with stone. Retailers can handle it all themselves and complete the full installation in one day or less. It’s simple.”
Bloom says, in order to grow and thrive, specialty barbecue retailers must find a way to take advantage of the outdoor-kitchen opportunity. “Think about the economics. You have to sell 20 grills to equal one outdoor kitchen sale. And, with those 20 individual grill sales, comes 20 deliveries, and 20 times the service calls and potential warranty issues,” he explains. “Most retailers who offer premium grills today will tell you that 10% of sales are on carts and 90% are built-ins. Those grills are being built into something. When you sell only the grill, you hand over the sale of the outdoor kitchen to someone else who is reaping the benefits.
“In exactly the same linear footprint you would use to display cart grills, you can maximize your real estate and double your economic return,” he continues. “Even if a dealer has a 20% conversion rate, there could be a dramatic difference to the bottom line, in exactly the same floor space.” Bloom says the company’s average outdoor kitchen retail sale is $25,000, including the cabinetry, appliances, and countertop.
The cabinetry is manufactured in Montréal and shipped from the company’s warehouse facility in Champlain, New York.
The reasoning makes sense to a growing number of hearth, patio, and barbecue retailers who have already signed on as Urban Bonfire dealers, including Luxapatio in Miami; Jack Wills Outdoor Living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Springdale, Arkansas; and Kerrisdale Lumber in Vancouver, Canada.
The company has lined up heavy hitters in the appliance channel, as well, including PIRCH and Snyder Diamond in Southern California; Yale Appliance & Lighting near Boston; Abt Appliance & Electronics in Chicago; and Albano Appliance in New York. Bloom says the line appeals to appliance dealers because “they can ask consumers about their outdoor-cooking needs at the same time they’re talking about their indoor kitchen.”
Jim Murdock, director of Merchandising – Appliances and Outdoor Products at PIRCH, says allowing clients to choose from a set of options regarding colors, designs, and finishes creates the opportunity for a “flexible, yet simple sale,” and the quick turnaround and easy assembly for installation teams allows projects to be “completed in weeks, not months.”
According to Murdock, since the line was added to the retailer’s four showrooms, “early results have been very encouraging. Urban Bonfire products will be an important addition to our arsenal as we tool up to make luxury outdoor kitchens a larger part of our overall business.”
By the end of the year, Urban Bonfire expects to have 75 dealers throughout the U.S. and Canada. “We thought the coasts would be the biggest areas for us, but we’ve also had success in the Midwest and Canada,” Bloom says. “We have been incredibly mindful about choosing our dealer partners. We would rather have fewer dealers that are all selling well.”
And sell they are. Urban Bonfire’s 2019 sales are set to double over last year, according to Bloom, and the company is expanding staff.
The cabinetry is manufactured in Montréal and shipped from the company’s warehouse facility in Champlain, New York. Urban Bonfire sells direct to dealers in most regions, but uses reps on the West Coast. The product is not sold online; consumers may purchase only through dealers, unless there is no retailer in their area. “This is a significant difference for our brand and many dealers are pleased with that policy,” Bloom says.
In May, the company cut the ribbon on the Urban Bonfire Outdoor Kitchen Design Boutique at Yale Appliance & Lighting in Boston, a “store-within-a-store” concept.
Photo: ©2019 Gordon Bernstein. gsbphoto.com.
The company has developed strategic partnerships with a number of premium grill manufacturers, including Hestan, Caliber, Lynx, Twin Eagles, Big Green Egg, and Memphis Wood Fire Grills, as well as with Cosentino, the makers of Dekton countertop, an ultra-compact surface resistant to UV rays, scratches, stains, and thermal shock, that is well-suited for outdoor use. “These are symbiotic relationships; you can’t have one without the other,” says Bloom.
In May, the company cut the ribbon on the Urban Bonfire Outdoor Kitchen Design Boutique at Yale Appliance & Lighting in Boston, a “store-within-a-store” concept that showcases Urban Bonfire modular cabinetry with Hestan grills and appliances, and a Dekton countertop.
“Both the retailer and consumer benefit from a ‘one-stop-shopping concept,’” says Patty Dominguez, vice president of Architectural and Design Sales for Cosentino North America. “Retailers are able to tell a more complete design story with these vignettes, and the consumer can visualize in one convenient place how products will look together once they’re installed, instead of bringing samples to different locations.”
According to Dominguez, the countertop has traditionally been challenging for outdoor kitchen dealers, and the partnership with Urban Bonfire helps streamline the process. “Over 95% of Urban Bonfire kitchens are also specified with Dekton countertops,” she says, noting, the Aura 15, a marble look with dramatic veining, and the Trilium, Orix, Nilium, and Radium finishes, reminiscent of aging metals, are the most popular colors.
Here, Urban Bonfire modular cabinetry is paired with Hestan grills and Dekton countertop.
Photo: ©2019 Gordon Bernstein. gsbphoto.com.
Opening More Doors
Bloom says the line is catching the attention of designers as well. “Historically, the design community has not been involved in outdoor projects, but we are seeing a huge spike in designers creating outdoor kitchens,” he says. “Designers and design-driven consumers haven’t always seen what they’re looking for at hearth shops and other places that promote traditional rock looks. We are positioned as furniture and cabinetry, and they are responding to the modern aesthetics.”
Bloom explains that while the cost of a premium, cabinetry-based outdoor kitchen is comparable to the total cost of a frame-and-finish kitchen, the former adds value and makes economic sense to the consumer. “Every square inch is functional – there are no hollow cavities,” he says. “This is less critical in suburban backyards, but if you have a condo balcony, or a city rooftop, or a small yard in Santa Monica, it’s important. Also, unlike a rock island, a cabinetry system can be reconfigured, or move with you if you move.”
Although there is a growing roster of modular outdoor kitchen competitors, including Danver, Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens, NatureKast Weatherproof Cabinetry, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, Napoleon’s Oasis Outdoor Kitchens, and others, Bloom is not concerned. “I love the competition,” he says. “It increases options for consumers, raises awareness of the category, and drives growth for everyone. Our biggest competition is that people don’t know that modular outdoor kitchens even exist.
“One year ago, we never could have imagined we would be where we are now,” he says. “Our company and products are resonating with dealers and we are growing. Our experience of being in their shoes, and knowing their challenges first-hand, helps us relate in a way most manufacturers can’t.”
The company has “incredible, cool, new products” in the works for 2020, some of which will incorporate technology, according to Bloom.
“Enthusiastic and passionate independent retailers can survive and thrive,” he says. “We hope to provide products and tools that help them succeed in the business of kitchens outdoors.”