Islands in the Southwest
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Photos Courtesy: ©2019 Blur Lifestyle Branding.
Were you to find yourself marooned on a desert island, you couldn’t find a better one than BBQ Island. The Arizona retailer, with locations in Scottsdale, Tempe, and Peoria, is a well-stocked oasis for outdoor cooking and entertaining enthusiasts. It carries more than 30 brands of barbecue grills, as well as a huge selection of outdoor kitchen components, barbecue accessories, sauces, rubs, charcoal and pellet fuels, fire pits, outdoor televisions, and every other conceivable product for creating a backyard paradise.
But opening a one-stop-shop for outdoor culinary pursuits was not on CEO Mike West’s radar when he moved to Arizona after college and took a job with timber-products company Weyerhaeuser. As a sales rep, West sold fiber-cement board to several businesses that manufactured outdoor kitchens in his Southwest territory.
“I never saw outdoor kitchens in Oregon where I was from,” he recalls. “I thought they were fantastic.”
So inspired was West that he approached one client about the possibility of opening a franchise business to sell prefab outdoor kitchens. “The owner didn’t give me the time of day,” he says. Instead, West found a more-amenable manufacturer and he and a friend partnered up to sell the islands as a side gig to their day jobs.
About the same time, another of West’s sales accounts had hit a rough patch and was looking to unload a large quantity of stainless-steel, built-in doors and drawers. West used his annual bonus to buy the lot, and sold the components on eBay out of his garage.
The side hustles took off, so much so that West quit his day job, and he and his now former partner founded their own outdoor kitchen company. They opened BBQ Island in 2002 in an industrial warehouse with enough space for a showroom and manufacturing operations for their prefabricated islands.
“We opened within a few months of (the terrorist attacks on) 9-11, which some people thought was crazy,” says West. But he persisted, peddling the islands at local home shows, and the business grew. “Fortunately, our area has always had a strong housing market, so that helped. We’ve had double-digit gains every year since we started the company.”
Mike West, CEO, with at least 30 brands of barbecue grills.
A Change in Direction
That growth trajectory was challenged in 2008, when the country hit an economic downturn. “We were making very high-quality islands at a time when people were foreclosing on their homes, and even those who weren’t, didn’t want to spend a lot on non-essential purchases,” West says.
The situation, coupled with manufacturing uncertainties due to fluctuating material and delivery costs, sparked a strategic change for the company, as well as, arguably, more crazy moves. “At the height of the recession in 2008, we bought the building, opened a brick-and-mortar retail store, and stopped manufacturing the islands,” West says.
In addition to its retail focus, BBQ Island created a wholesale division to sell grills and outdoor kitchen components to contractors, pool builders, landscapers, and others who were designing and building outdoor living spaces in the area. The company also sold online through its website and third-party marketplaces such as Amazon.
It proved to be a smart move. By 2010, BBQ Island had outgrown its original Tempe location and acquired the building next door to create a 14,000 sq. ft. hub that combines retail space, corporate offices, and warehouse facilities. In 2013, the company added a 6,000 sq. ft. second location in Scottsdale, and in 2016, opened a third location in the Arrowhead section of Peoria. The company’s total annual sales are between, ballpark, $15 million and $20 million.
Thirty percent of BBQ Island’s sales today are online, through its website and third-party sites such as Amazon. But West believes that share will shrink now that online sites have to collect sales tax. “Our online sales are already down due to it,” he says. “The situation is very difficult – it’s a huge mess, actually. The tax percentage is different in every state, and the tax originates from where the consumer is located. It’s a lot of administrative work to deal with sales tax and monitor MAP pricing for our online sales. It’s a huge pain in the butt.”
The upside has been double-digit gains in BBQ Island’s brick-and-mortar stores. “It was the best year since we’ve been open,” West says. “A lot of people come in with quotes they get online, and between tax and MAP pricing, a lot of times the stuff costs less to buy in the store. We want to be able to help the customer and keep the sale local, so we’ll work with people.”
The business offers one of the largest selections of barbecue and outdoor living products in the Southwest, if not the country. It carries a wide variety of gas grills, smokers, kamados, and pellet grills in a range of price points from more than 30 manufacturers, including Twin Eagles, Napoleon, Bull, DCS, Fire Magic, Hestan, Lynx, Alfresco, Portable Kitchens, Big Green Egg, Kamado Joe, Primo, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Green Mountain Grills, and Traeger, as well as its own BBQ Island private-label brand. The stores also carry a broad assortment of barbecue tools and accessories, as well as an extensive selection of charcoal, pellets, wood fuels, sauces, spice rubs, marinades, and other consumables.
West says he mostly supports brands that offer exclusive lines for brick-and-mortar specialty retailers, and tries to avoid lines found in warehouse clubs and Big Box stores, because they typically have slim margins.
West says high-end premium-priced gas grills have been “a mixed bag” of late, with sales of some brands such as Twin Eagles up, while other luxury lines are down. Mid-priced units from domestic manufacturers are selling best, according to West, with Delta Heat from Twin Eagles and Sedona by Lynx his gas-grill standouts this year.
“People are finding value in domestic mid-line grills,” he says. “Imports are struggling with tariffs and have raised prices, so people figure, why not spend a little more and get a higher-quality ‘fit and finish,’ and better features. Due to tariff-related price increases, we’ve seen a decline in sales of brands that source overseas. Even our own BBQ Island’s brand of imported grills was hit hard. We’ve absorbed some of the price increases without passing them along to the consumer – as have other manufacturers and distributors – but I guess, in the long run it may bring some manufacturing back to the U.S.”
This is a class with Pitmaster Jess Pryles. She is an author, TV personality, and creator of Hardcore Carnivore sauces and rubs, as well as the grill line Pitts & Spitts.
West says pellet grills have been “very popular.” The Prime Grill from Green Mountain Grills was BBQ Island’s hottest seller this year, according to West. The business also carries pellet grills from Traeger, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Fast Eddy’s by Cookshack, Pitts & Spitts, and Louisiana Grills Estate Series.
Big Green Egg is the only kamado brand displayed in-store, but BBQ Island also sells Kamado Joe and Primo online. West says that, while sales of Big Green Egg were down, his Kamado Joe sales were up more than 100% over last year. “The brand is very innovative, and being part of the Masterbuilt supply chain helps,” he says.
While West says pizza oven sales have been “hit or miss,” he credits Alfa Ovens with driving traffic into his stores. “They are doing a good job of marketing. People are coming in asking for Alfa Ovens specifically,” he says.
West says the bulk of his grill sales are built-ins for outdoor kitchens; cart grills account for less than 5% of his grill business. BBQ Island does not offer outdoor kitchen design-build services, but rather supplies grills and equipment for projects by landscapers, builders, designers, and other referral partners.
“Half the time customers are referred to us and come in with plans and already know what they want,” says West. “When they come in it’s beneficial for us, because consumers often don’t know what’s possible or available for Outdoor Rooms, so we try to educate them. They’ll often upgrade.” The stores also host after-hours demo events for specifiers to educate them and develop referring relationships.
West just signed on as a dealer for Urban Bonfire modular outdoor kitchen cabinetry, and is adding displays to each of the stores. He believes the line’s sleek design will fill a need for “people who are looking for something different than a stucco island with a tile top.” As with masonry outdoor kitchens, BBQ Island will assemble and deliver the grills and cabinetry, but let landscapers and other partners handle the installation. “You never know what you’re going to find in the backyard,” he says.
For similar reasons he refers warranty issues, service calls, and island retrofits and replacements to an independent third party to handle. “He’s actually one of our customers,” says West. “He takes care of all the grills in our stores and does a really great job. This situation works better than us having service people on staff. Our service partner has less overhead, so he can charge less, and he’s skilled working with gas. We don’t have to take on that liability.”
This is a class with Pitmaster Moe Cason. Moe was a contestant, judge, and star on Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters” and “BBQ Pit Wars.”
Creating Excitement and Driving Traffic
West says BBQ Island’s outdoor cooking classes have been an excellent way to create in-store experiences, build excitement, strengthen customer relationships, and grow business. Each store typically hosts a couple classes a month, year-round, and West says they often see a lot of “snowbirds” who return to the area every winter and take classes. Class topics rotate frequently and include everything from grilling holiday meals to grilled appetizers to barbecue classics. A recent “Steak 6 Ways Masterclass” ($75 per person), covered fire management, steak selection, and cooking techniques for ribeye steaks, tomahawks, and prime rib, on multiple types of grills and smokers.
“Date Night” classes ($99 per couple) are very popular, according to West. “Guests enjoy a multi-course meal, have the entertainment of the class, and they can bring a bottle of wine,” he says. “It’s a great deal that costs less than a restaurant dinner out. It’s all about the experience.”
Classes are taught by a changing roster of professional pit masters made up of local chefs, caterers, and store employees (some of whom are competition cooks). Manufacturer partners also sponsor classes and provide their culinary spokespeople to teach, such as the recent Traeger Pellet Grill’s Shop Class with TV-celebrity barbecuer Diva Q.
“You need to have the right person teaching the class – they have to have marketing savvy,” West explains. “We ask the instructors what products they’ll be using in class, so we can stock them. We’ll create a display of the instructor’s cookbooks to sell, as well as the sauces, rubs, tools, accessories, charcoal, and wood chips they use in the class – even right down to the butcher paper they use.
“Classes are a great vehicle to bring new customers into the store, and people almost always buy something. Sometimes they’ll spend hundreds of dollars after a class.”
A few months ago, BBQ Island launched a series of free, live classes on Instagram, airing every Wednesday at 7:15pm. Hosted by BBQ Island’s employees, the three-minute segments cover tips, techniques, and recipes for preparing a different dish each week. According to West, viewership has been growing steadily with each segment.
This is a class with Pitmasters Malcom Reed of “How to BBQ Right,” and Heath Riles. They are YouTube sensations and some of the best on the competition circuit.
Though the retailer doesn’t necessarily expect to see the same kind of immediate returns as with the in-person cooking classes, the goal of the social media classes is to engage and entertain current and prospective customers, and teach them how to use and enjoy their grills.
“Whether they’re just starting out with burgers or want to try competition barbecuing, we want to get people interested in all types of outdoor cooking,” says West. “We want to teach someone how to fully use their grill and all its features, rather than just sell them a pricy grill they might not use.
“The more they use it, the more they’ll come back. The goal is to get them to be long-term customers. Instead of a one-time grill and outdoor kitchen components sale, we believe ongoing instruction and coaching keeps giving people a reason to return for fuels, sauces, rubs, and even more classes.”
A robust social media marketing program also aids in that effort. The retailer has 11,600 followers on Facebook; 2,500 on Instagram; 2,700 on Twitter; and 500 each on YouTube and Pinterest. Posts offer tips, recipes, and other educational content, as well as promoting upcoming classes and events.
West says the stores’ key customer demographic is in the 35 to 55 age range, with incomes over $75,000. Though shoppers skew 75% male, West understands that women are the decision-makers, particularly on large spends. “That’s why it’s so important to get women in our stores for cooking classes, so they can see all the outdoor living products we offer,” he says.
West credits his employees’ passion and enthusiasm for outdoor cooking for strengthening customer relationships and contributing to the success of the business. “We have 22 employees, and most everyone we’ve hired has been either a customer or a referral,” he says. “The camaraderie among employees and the customers is very cool.”
This secret to success will be instrumental in West’s plan to open a fourth BBQ Island store in the coming year. “Every rep who comes in says they’ve never seen anything like our stores,” he says. “We think we have created something special.”
You might say it’s a BBQ Island unto itself.
Store Name: BBQ Island
Address: 1715 W. Ruby Drive, #105, Tempe, AZ
Owner: Mike West - CEO
Key Executives: Adam Ebert, CFO
Year Established: 2002
Web Site: www.bbqislandinc.com
Email: Click here for email
Phone: (877) 474-5669 (Tempe Location)
Number of Stores: 3
Number of Employees: 22
Gross Annual Sales: $15 million - $20 million
Sq. Ft. of Building Space:
Lines Carried: Alfa Ovens, Alfresco, American Outdoor Grill, BBQ Island, Beefeater, Big Green Egg, Blaze, Bull, Cajun Grill, Caliber Range Corporation, Cookshack, Coyote Outdoor Living, DCS, Delsol, Delta Heat, Everdure by Heston Blumenthal, EVO, Firegear Outdoors, Fire Magic, Forno de Pizza, Green Mountain Grills, Hestan Outdoor, Kamado Joe, La Caja China, Louisiana Grills, Lynx, Meadow Creek, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, Napoleon, The Outdoor GreatRoom Company, Pit Barrel Cooker, Portable Kitchens, Primo Grills, Saber, Solaire, Solé, Summerset, The Good-One Smokers, Twin Eagles, Traeger, Urban Bonfire, Weber, and many more.