Travelin' (Family) Man
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Photos Courtesy: ©2019 Jonathan Miller.
In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first novel in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, he observes that, “Not all those who wander are lost.” In fact, Jonathan Miller spent years wandering the U.S., and, along the way, found 300 new dealers for his Breeo Smokeless Fire Pits.
The innovative products were launched at the HPBExpo in March 2014. Designed with a secondary combustion system to burn-off and eliminate smoke, and double-walled construction that stays cool on outer surfaces while burning 30% hotter than typical fire pits, they generated a lot of buzz at the trade show, even winning Vesta Awards for Best Outdoor Hearth Product, and Best-in-Show Outdoor Room Product. Miller says he “naïvely” expected dealer orders to come rolling in. Instead, he heard crickets.
“I thought, if we are going to stay in business, we need to figure out how to get dealers and grow sales,” says Miller. So he loaded up a trailer with fire pits and started driving from dealer to dealer, calling ahead to say he would be stopping by, but otherwise without an appointment. Upon arrival, he would ask for the owner, give a little demo in the parking lot, and then make an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“I’d say, ‘If you buy a fire pit right now at a 30% discount, you can become a dealer; no minimums. I’ll send you credit paperwork for the next order,’” he says.
After three days on the road, Miller had set up 11 new dealers in eastern Pennsylvania. Most placed follow-up orders for at least four or five more fire pits. “I said, ‘I think we found our strategy,’” he recalls.
Jonathan and family friend Jesse Bontrager serving up a Fourth of July feast, Breeo-style.
Miller’s extended road trip started in earnest when he bought a used, 17-ft. Casita Travel Trailer, hitched it to his SUV, and hit the road with wife Janessa. They implemented the unorthodox sales technique from Massachusetts to Florida all spring. Then, as summer approached, he and Janessa headed west, visiting dealers all along the way.
As children of missionaries, both Jon and Janessa were used to moving and living in far-flung locales, but they embraced this wanderlust lifestyle with passion. The newlyweds lived out of the Casita full-time for two and a half years, camping on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands, and rigging up a makeshift cell tower and Internet hot spot so Jon could run the business, and Janessa could take online college classes and work as a freelance writer and editor, remotely.
Their office window routinely overlooked majestic mountain ranges, scenic meadows, or wildlife-filled woodlands. The company water cooler was often a crystal-clear stream, and most meals were prepared over a Breeo fire pit. When they weren’t visiting dealers or exhibiting at trade or home shows, the Millers went backpacking, hiking, and canoeing. “If you called our company’s 800-number for the first two years, it would likely be answered from some mountain out West,” Miller says.
“This sales strategy was predicated on an old-school, hit-the-road mentality,” he says. “As a start-up company selling a high-quality, American-made product, I felt I couldn’t just have a rep or distribution company set up accounts and handle sales. As the owner, (I felt) it was important to get face time with retailers in order to form relationships and make deals. You can do trade shows, but a visit is personal with undivided attention,” Miller says.
To further connect with dealers and consumer customers, Janessa documented their adventures on the company’s social media pages and the couple’s blogs – “Unbound Nomads” and “Earthly Vagabond.” Their inspiring photos of stunning scenes of nature, cozy campfires, and off-the-grid pursuits, hooked followers who journeyed along virtually and vicariously.
Chicken and veggies cooking over the open fire on the Double Flame 24-inch Fire Pit and grill.
The vagabond business plan proved effective. According to Miller, the unconventional approach netted more than 300 dealers, and bumped sales from $90,000 in 2014 to $740,000 the following year. Sales have grown steadily ever since. In 2018, the company saw a 40% increase; this year, sales are on pace to climb 30 to 35%, Miller says. “We’re growing about as fast as we can handle the production and service.”
Breeo’s wood-burning fire pits and related accessories are available in stainless steel or high-temperature-painted-steel finishes. Its freestanding fire pits range from lightweight, portable models to sophisticated, modern-looking units with fire-glass accents. The company also offers fire pit inserts for stone or paver surrounds. Everything is made in Breeo’s Lancaster facility in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country.
Miller says distribution and sales are strongest along the East Coast, where Breeo’s Zentro fire pit inserts are its most popular product. In the Midwest and in Western states such as Colorado, California, and Oregon, its Double Flame stainless-steel portable fire pit is the top-seller.
Miller says most Breeo customers don’t share his fondness for off-the-grid living. “That community is still fairly small and often price-driven,” he says. “We have a Made-in-the-U.S. product, so our price point is higher. Our key customers are middle-class or above-average-income men, who are interested in the outdoors in some way. It may be mountain biking, hunting, fishing, or camping, but their outdoor affinity is the strongest common denominator. Affluent consumers not interested in the outdoors typically buy a gas fire pit. Our customers have an aspirational connection to the outdoors.”
The company sells mainly through brick-and-mortar dealers, with limited availability online. “We protect our dealers through MSRP enforcement online; our website price is higher than someone can buy it for at a dealer,” Miller explains. “Selling online has allowed us to educate the public, so it’s important to be there, but we make it easy for a consumer to find it locally through our dealer-locator page.”
Ribeyes and asparagus sizzle away over one of Breeo’s very first fire pit prototypes.
Ribeyes and asparagus sizzle away over one of Breeo’s very first fire pit prototypes.
Setting Down Roots and Getting Social
When the Millers were about to become parents to son Weston, now almost 18 months old, they sold the Casita and bought a house in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, about 20 minutes from Breeo’s headquarters. “We needed more stability for the baby, plus Breeo’s needs were changing,” says Miller. “Originally, we went on the road to set up dealers, but Breeo had reached the point where we had an established dealer network and were growing faster than we could keep up.
“We now have an inside Sales manager and independent reps on the road, so, for the past year, my role has shifted to developing marketing content that will help build our brand, educate the public, and create consumer demand,” he says. “We want to create a lifestyle brand so consumers will walk into dealers asking for Breeo.”
Initially, Miller mainly used Facebook to connect with Breeo’s 17,000 followers on the platform. He calls YouTube a “tough nut to crack for brands” – the company has 400 followers – but says Instagram has been “growing tremendously.” Breeo now has over 6,500 followers on the platform – up from 1,000 followers last year – with a goal to reach 10,000 this year.
With the exception of the company’s introductory product-information video, which has garnered 7.5 million views since it was posted in 2016, Miller noticed that food- and cooking-related content triggered the most engagement. A video about using a Breeo fire pit as a live-fire grill has nearly 1 million views, and other cooking videos regularly rack up tens of thousands of views. The realization inspired a shift in marketing focus for the company.
“Since we started the company, we focused on promoting the product – smokeless fire pits,” says Miller. “But when someone has friends over to sit around the fire pit, the fact that it’s smokeless is discussed once. It’s a great idea, but the next time those guests come over, the conversation is not about the smokeless feature. We’ve found that customers who are cooking on the product are much more engaged with it.
“Picture this scenario: A guy goes to church Sunday morning and talks about what the family did Saturday night. He might not talk about the great smokeless campfire they sat around, but he will talk about the great steaks they cooked over it. Food brings the connection to a deeper level. We are now shifting from a product focus to a lifestyle focus that emphasizes live-fire cooking. Our goal is to build a community of like-minded people who are passionate about and engaged in the Breeo brand.”
He says Breeo products fit into the “exploding” trend of charcoal- and pellet-cooking. “For years, most people cooked over gas grills, but they offer low entertainment value, require little cooking skill, and don’t position the user as a grill master. Primitive fuel sources provide higher entertainment value and better flavor because of the smoke and flames.
“Someone who cooks with these fuels is perceived as more skilled. For cutting-edge early adopters who traded gas grills for Big Green Eggs 15 years ago, cooking over a live wood fire is the next logical step in the progression. Our goal is to become one of the major brands to offer quality wood-fired cooking products.”
Miller recording an episode of the “Live Fire Cooking Podcast” (available on iTunes, Spotify, and Stitcher).
To realize this goal, Miller amped-up the food-focused content on the company’s social media platforms, including drool-worthy cooking photos, videos, and recipes shot in scenic locations. Breeo’s “Mystery Meat” video series, created in partnership with a Pennsylvania-based meat company, features Miller unwrapping a cut of meat, and prepping and cooking it over a live fire. These and other videos, all produced in-house at Breeo, are posted on the new “BreeoTV” channel that launched in February on YouTube.
The company has teamed with Derek Wolf, creator of the “Over the Fire Cooking” Instagram site, dedicated to grilling over a live wood fire, with 800,000 followers. Over the last year, the influencer has collaborated with Breeo on sponsored posts, cooking videos, and other content. “People in the fire pit space know Breeo, but we’re not as known in the wood-fired-cooking space,” says Miller. “Aligning with Derek puts us in that community.”
Since August, Miller and Wolf have also joined with grilling expert Christie Vanover, creator of the “Girls Can Grill” blog, to create the “Live Fire Cooking Podcast.” Each 30-minute, bi-weekly podcast features the three experts delving into a different wood-fired-cooking topic or technique. “We want to be the voice of the industry and this lifestyle community,” Miller says.
Miller, whose parents were originally from Canada, plans to create additional outdoor-cooking content, as well as winter-camping content, at the tiny house he recently built on a remote, wilderness property six hours north of Toronto. The tiny house offers slightly more room than the camper, but the amenities are still rustic: a fresh-water spring, an outhouse, and a “sauna shower-house.” Eventually, a solar system will be installed to generate electricity for cell phones and laptops.
Miller explains that continual content creation is important because, “Social media used to be a nice thing to have; now it means life or death for a business,” he says. “People live on their phones, so you have to get active on social media. This applies to retailers, as well. You don’t need to hire a marketing company. Today’s phones take great-quality photos, so get shots of what you’re cooking, your sale items, your displays, and post them online.”
The company has started partnering with some of its dealers on wood-fired cooking festivals, offering demos, food tastings, giveaways, and discounts on Breeo fire pits. “The amount of sales and engagement at events is amazing,” says Miller. “You can draw 1,000 people to a hearth shop in one day. When you do events you get attention, and when you leverage those events on social media, you get the best of both worlds.”
These festivals, and the resulting social media content, will help launch the company’s new line of cooking-focused products, due out this fall. “We’ve always had grids and accessories that allow you to cook right on our fire pits, but these exciting new products will enhance that experience,” says Miller.
More Wandering Awaits
He’s about to take to the highway again soon, traveling westward across the U.S. to introduce the new products, visit dealers, and create social-media-marketing content. This time, with toddler in tow, the family will live out of their newly purchased, previously-owned, 1992 Mitsubishi Delica Star Wagon, an olive green, four-wheel-drive, diesel van, imported from Japan with right-side steering controls that they’ve outfitted for camping. “This van will allow us to go more off-road than we could pulling a camper,” he says. “The more adventure-ready your vehicle, the cooler the campsite.”
Miller says he and Janessa are “getting antsy” to be on the road again. Who knows what they’ll find when they get lost.