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Hearth & Home December 2019

Illustration: ©2019 A.E. Brown.

What's Cooking?

By Lisa Readie Mayer

What was, what is, and what’s to come in the barbecue category.


Casey Harvey – Ray Murray Inc.
Mike Hopsicker – Ray Murray Inc.
Peter Ross – Home & Hearth
Mike Rutherford – Rutherford Equipment
John Tatro – Sierra Select Distributors
Robert L. Wilk – Robert L. Wilk Inc.

The calendar is coming to an end, which makes it a fitting time to take stock, analyze results, and observe trends from the previous 12 months, and then use that information to chart a course for the coming year. That’s exactly what we asked a selection of barbecue industry wholesale distributors and manufacturer’s reps to do, and we’re sharing the findings with you on the following pages.

The group sitting in on this virtual roundtable represents regions all over the country, and weighs in on trends in grill categories, popular price points, the Outdoor Room concept, successful marketing promotions, and more. The participants also get real about challenges facing the industry, their companies, and their specialty-retail dealer partners. Finally, the panel offers an informed look at what we might expect in 2020. (Spoiler alert: despite some election-year jitters, most are quite optimistic about next year.)

The consensus was not as universal on other topics. Indeed, opinions in the barbecue industry are as varied as rib recipes. For instance, some distributors are having success at the luxury end of the market, while for others, mid-priced grills and appliances are performing better. Outdoor kitchens dominate some areas, but have been slower to catch on in others. As distributor Mike Hopsicker, president of Ray Murray, so aptly put it, “What you focus on, you generally succeed at.”

Here’s a look back at the world of barbecue in 2019, and a look forward to 2020.

Mike Rutherford.

Mike Rutherford, President, Rutherford Equipment

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia

For six decades, this family-owned, third-generation wholesale distributor has supplied gas equipment, and hearth and barbecue products, to specialty retailers throughout the Southeast. This year was a good one for the company overall, and particularly so in the grill segment, with sales up “considerably,” according to company president Mike Rutherford.

In the outdoor space, Rutherford Equipment distributes Fire Magic, American Outdoor Grills (AOG), Summerset Professional Grills, American Muscle Grills, Memphis Wood Fire Grills, MHP, American Fyre Designs, Stellar Hearth Products, Mason-Lite Fireplaces, and Firegear Outdoors.

Rutherford attributes some of the growth to a robust new-construction market in Florida and other regions within the company’s territory. “Builders are offering outdoor kitchens as part of their optional packages, and showcasing them in model homes,” he says. “As a result, we’re seeing more demand for built-in grills and outdoor kitchen products.”

According to Rutherford, about 95% of the company’s grill sales are built-in models. Sales of other built-in components also are increasing, as consumers expand the number of elements they’re incorporating in outdoor kitchens. He says dry-storage cabinets are increasing in popularity for outdoor kitchens, as a result of dealers educating consumers about the benefits of the sealed, weatherproof storage units versus traditional, door-and-drawer built-ins.

In addition, Rutherford says, Summerset’s new Madera Series of outdoor kitchen elements, combining stainless steel with rich-looking wood panels and handles, is attracting attention. “It offers a unique look in an outdoor kitchen,” he says.

He says pellet grills from Memphis Wood Fire Grills have been a bright spot this year. “The pellet category is in its infancy and still growing rapidly,” says Rutherford. “We got the Memphis line about 18 months ago and have seen a lot of growth. It’s been a really good line for us.”

Rutherford says gas grills continue to dominate his grill sales, but the company has experienced a noticeable dip in sales of ultra-premium grills at the highest price points. “Consumers are gravitating to grills at the middle price points, and those mid-range lines are really increasing,” he says. “These gains outweigh any decreased sales of the premium-priced products.”

After meeting football and baseball legend Bo Jackson – named by ESPN as the greatest athlete of all time – at an HPBA show, Rutherford Equipment partnered with Bo Jackson Signature Foods on a promotion that runs through this year. The deal offers a package of rib-eye steaks and a personal note from Jackson, for each single consumer purchase of grills and outdoor kitchen products over $5,000 retail. This effective incentive has been used by dealers to help close a sale, or reward a salesperson, according to Rutherford.  

The distributor is noticing “Spiff” programs becoming more prevalent in the grill industry. According to Rutherford, the trend is modeled after the common appliance-industry practice of paying incentive bonuses to retail salespeople for selling a specific product. “Each manufacturer or distributor works their program differently, but I see them as a positive for the industry,” he says. “These added incentives are a way to keep good employees.”

Another trend he’s seeing: Very few retailers stock product inventory these days. “For dealers, this lessens the risk of picking the ‘wrong’ product, and prevents them from ending up with outdated inventory or a lot of dead stock,” Rutherford explains. “They very much depend on distributors to deliver product in a couple days. It makes things challenging for distributors. We need to have the right mix of inventory to be able to respond quickly.”

As for 2020, Rutherford remains cautiously optimistic. “In election years, people tend to be conservative with their purchases,” he says. “They’ll spend on needs more than wants, and that could impact the luxury grill market. We have to be prepared for that possibility, but as long as the economy stays where it is, it should be another good year.”

Mike Hopsicker.

Mike Hopsicker, President and Casey Harvey, Director of Sales, Ray Murray Inc.

Midwest, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast States east of the Mississippi River

With a territory spanning states east of the Mississippi River, and warehouse facilities in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and North Carolina, Ray Murray Inc. is one of the nation’s largest two-step hearth and grill distributors. (The company also is a major distributor of propane parts and equipment, a segment that accounts for half its business.)

“We had a relatively good year in 2019, particularly in high-end grills, which is what we emphasize,” says Mike Hopsicker, company president. He says products from Twin Eagles, Delta Heat, Delsol, Fire Magic, and AOG lines make up the lion’s share of the company’s grill sales. “We’re seeing more growth at the highest end of the category,” he says. “There is a lot of competition at the mid-price-point level.”

Twin Eagles’ new pellet grill exceeded sales expectations. “We sold more than we ever anticipated in its first year out,” according to Hopsicker. He says the company experienced “decent growth” this year in cart grills from Broilmaster, MHP, Phoenix Grills, and Camp Chef, as well as in outdoor hearth products from RH Peterson, Firegear, and Bromic Outdoor Heaters.

By contrast, the company’s kamado business – it sells Primo Ceramic Grills – was down this year, according to Hopsicker. “Ceramic kamado cookers are losing a bit of marketshare to pellet grills,” he explains. He believes the recent purchase of Primo Ceramic Grills by Empire Comfort Systems should help the line rebound next year. “Primo is a great product and this move will improve marketing for the brand,” he says.

After 10 years of double-digit growth, the company’s sales of outdoor kitchen components “has slowed a little in the last couple years, but remains steady,” according to Hopsicker. “When we started with outdoor kitchen products, our company, and the grill manufacturers we partnered with, were ahead of the curve. There was a lot less competition and we were growing our dealer base by significant numbers every year. Now, it’s a more mature market, with a stable dealer base and stiffer competition.”

Hopsicker says, beyond a built-in grill and refrigerator, sinks are gaining in popularity in outdoor kitchens and power burners are outselling sideburners. The latter trend is a particular win-win, according to Hopsicker. “A power burner adds cooking versatility for the consumer, and benefits dealers because it increases the spend,” he says.

Hopsicker says outdoor kitchen design preferences remain regional. “In the Midwest, we’re still seeing a lot of stone islands, but modern-looking modular cabinetry is catching on along the East Coast.”

According to the company’s director of Sales, Casey Harvey, “Dealers who are successful with outdoor kitchen products align themselves with pool builders, hardscape dealers, landscapers, and other businesses that are already in the backyard. Most hearth shops can’t do a full outdoor build, but they are the product experts. We emphasize that retailers need to actively market their outdoor kitchen business locally to develop referring relationships and partnerships.”

He says successful dealers invite specifiers to lunch-and-learn type events, training sessions, and other programming to position their store and staff as product authorities and essential partners. “The dealers who focus on this business do well,” Harvey says. “The guys who bring it in and expect it to take off on its own, don’t see the same results.”

Both Hopsicker and Harvey are optimistic about the coming year, and are expanding sales resources to ensure continued growth. “What you focus on, you generally succeed at,” says Hopsicker. “We think there is room for growth in the barbecue industry.”

Peter Ross.

Peter Ross, President, Home & Hearth

Southwest, Prairie States, Hawaii

After years spent building a strong dealer base for hearth products and several grill brands throughout the Southwest, Prairie States, and Hawaii, independent manufacturer’s rep Peter Ross, president of Home & Hearth, has expanded his focus to include outdoor kitchen cabinetry and patio umbrellas. The business shift was an effort to offer more counter-seasonal products to hearth dealers.

The added lines – Danver Stainless Outdoor Kitchens, Brown Jordan Outdoor Kitchens, and Frankford Umbrellas – once small additions to the business, have gained traction, and now equal the company’s hearth product sales, according to Ross.

“About 80% to 90% of the outdoor kitchens in the U.S. today are stone or steel-frame islands built onsite,” according to Ross. “But we’re seeing a huge trend – especially in high-end projects – toward modular cabinetry-based systems. They offer more usable space and a more contemporary look.” He says the growing number of companies now offering modular cabinetry systems in either stainless steel, HDPE, or aluminum, is evidence the concept is catching on.

Being involved in his dealers’ outdoor projects gives Ross an insider’s perspective on trends in grills, outdoor kitchens, and Outdoor Rooms. “I see their designs, so I know what grills and appliances are specified,” he says. “They tend to be premium products. If someone is putting in a Brown Jordan or Danver outdoor kitchen, they’re putting in high-end grills and appliances from companies such as Twin Eagles, Wolf, Alfresco, Caliber, True, and Summit.”

Another trend he’s identified: Homeowners are opting for more elaborate outdoor kitchens. “Ten or 15 years ago, an outdoor kitchen included a counter with a grill, a mini fridge, and maybe a sink,” he says. “Now, outdoor kitchens are like indoor kitchens with much more functional workspace and a greater selection of appliances and elements, like power burners and trash pull-outs. People are creating outdoor spaces that feel like an extension of the home rather than an extension of the yard.”

Ross says, “A lot of fun and innovative cooking products are being integrated into outdoor kitchens today.” He is seeing more pellet grills being built in, thanks to the availability of stainless-steel pellet grills from premium manufacturers. Gas pizza ovens also are becoming more popular, he says.

Another cooking product on his radar: induction burners installed directly beneath a granite counter surface. “It’s a new product I saw at the kitchen and bath show. You don’t see the burners, just the counter, for a very sleek look,” he says. “It could be done indoors or outdoors. It’s very cool.”  

Paralleling indoor kitchen trends, Ross is seeing a greater variety of under-counter appliances and accessories available for outdoor kitchens. “Under-counter outdoor refrigerators, freezers, freezer/fridge combos, and ice makers make the space more functional,” he says. “Consumers can make the outdoor space whatever they want it to be.”

According to Ross, premium, cabinetry-based modular outdoor kitchens are gaining traction in affluent markets. “It’s a regional trend,” he says. “We have a lot of business along the coast and in wealthy areas like Scottsdale, Denver, Aspen, and Breckenridge. It’s not as popular in smaller mountain communities where people are more likely to opt for a rock island or even a cart grill. It’s not for every retailer, but those with the right customer base are doing well with it.”

Ross says dealers in a variety of channels, including hearth and barbecue retailers, appliance dealers, kitchen and bath design shops, and interior design studios, are having success selling modular outdoor cabinetry. He has also set up dealers with established businesses building masonry outdoor kitchens, who want to branch into cabinetry systems.

There are commonalities among dealers who are successful in the outdoor kitchen business, according to Ross. “They put energy into marketing and promoting,” he says. “It’s not enough to have the product on the sales floor; you have to go beyond your doors and reach out to designers, landscapers, architects, and builders.

“The simplest and most effective thing a dealer can do is pick up the phone and ask to meet with specifiers in their community to educate them about the product. In a lot of outdoor kitchen projects, the homeowners are working with a designer, so it’s really important to establish a direct connection with these specifiers. They are the ones recommending product to the end customer.”

As a board member for the HPBA Pacific, Ross is closely monitoring the issue of natural-gas legislation in California communities. “It’s not the state, it’s the individual city councils that are making these decisions,” he explains. “They’re all approaching it differently, and often without a lot of study or understanding of the ramifications of these actions. It’s concerning for hearth manufacturers and dealers. They’re not prohibiting propane, so we don’t know yet if or how it will impact the barbecue world.”

John Tatro.

John Tatro, President, Sierra Select Distributor

California, Arizona, Nevada

With roots dating back to the late 1950s as a television parts supplier, Sierra Select Distributors has evolved to become a major wholesale distributor with three business divisions – home appliances and outdoor living products; custom home integration; and auto entertainment electronic products – throughout California, Arizona, and Nevada. “Diversity is our strength, but there is also a lot of synergy between these industries,” says company president John Tatro.

Technology is the common, unifying thread, he says. “Smart technology is in the car, the home, and even outdoor appliances, and many of these products are app driven. The connected home is not just in the luxury market; it’s widespread in the mainstream today.”  

A growing segment of the company’s business is to consolidate and integrate consumers’ many home-system apps into one simple, customized app program that can be used to control multiple things. “For instance, if you’re leaving the house, you would be able to use one app button to close your shades, turn off the lights, change the thermostat, lock the doors, close the garage, and do the other things you need to do when you leave the house, rather than opening each of these product apps individually,” Tatro explains. “Then, when you return home, one button controls everything that needs to happen when you enter the house.”

According to Tatro, the trend hit a high gear beginning with the Nest smart thermostat. “It revolutionized the difficult and cumbersome process of programming a thermostat,” he says. “That one product had such simplicity of use that it launched a wave of all types of products that could be easily controlled by apps. Technology allows you to do more from anywhere you happen to be.”

He says he’s seeing more and more smart, app-controlled products in the outdoor space. He points to outdoor lighting products, patio shades, fire pits, televisions, speakers, and grills that incorporate smart technology and are controlled by apps today. His company also distributes an app-controlled yard-sprinkler system that can be programmed to monitor the weather report and adapt accordingly when connected through Wi-Fi. “The trend is really expanding outdoors,” he says.

An example is the EGG Genius, a smart, interactive temperature controller for the Big Green Egg, that Tatro says was a big seller this year. The accessory product lets users monitor and control the grill temperature and cook time, and track the internal food temperature on a phone, tablet, or computer through an app. “People can control their Egg right from their couch,” he says.

He says sales of other Big Green Egg accessories also grew “exponentially” this year. “This is important because it engages consumers and drives them back into dealers’ stores,” he says. Tatro says solid sales of kamado accessories help keep the category “strong and viable.” The distributor added 65 new Big Green Egg dealers in its territory year-to-date and maintained “steady sales” in the line this year. “Our kamado grill sales were flat, but I’ll take that,” he says.  

“Our challenge is that Big Green Egg is not a culture out here like it is in the Southeast, where it’s a way of life,” he explains. “We do a lot of high-profile events like food and wine festivals, and the Country Music Awards, and we’re involved in several Eggfests that generate high-level exposure, but we’re still trying to increase awareness.” He believes Big Green Egg’s partnership with Ace Hardware will help on that front. “All Big Green Egg dealers get leverage out of Ace featuring the product in advertising,” Tatro says.

Another potential benefit for kamado dealers, according to Tatro, is a growing sense of “buyer’s remorse” he has observed among some new pellet grill owners. “These are consumers who bought into the hype about pellet grills, but now are frustrated by the nightmare they can be to clean,” he says. “Also, the temperature range is comparatively limited, and if the power goes out, the grill can’t be used.” He says these rumbles of dissatisfaction may signal a rebound trend for kamado sales in the coming years.

Tatro says sales of fire tables from The Outdoor GreatRoom Company have been “growing exponentially,” fueled by innovative designs and burner technology. “We are in a good climate where the outdoor space is used year-round, so that helps, too,” he says.

Pergola kits from The Outdoor GreatRoom Company also are doing well for the distributor. He says some dealers sell unassembled kits to do-it-yourself-minded customers, while others offer assembly and installation services. “This is another opportunity for our dealers to engage their customers, gain access to their backyards, and see what else they might need,” he explains. “It’s an opportunity to make another sale.”

Tatro says sales of built-in gas grills have been steady, but without much growth. The company distributes its own private-label line under the Solé Gourmet brand. Its Solé Gourmet-branded wood-fired pizza ovens, imported from Italy, have been “good sellers,” and outdoor refrigerator sales remain strong, according to Tatro.

The company distributes outdoor kitchen islands from Challenger Designs. “They have been very popular,” he says. “People like the portability; you can take them with you if you move, or change their location in the backyard. And they have the ‘wife factor’ – they look good, they introduce color to the patio, and the high-grade aluminum holds up in the elements. The barbecue is considered a man’s space, but females have a big say in these spends, particularly in outdoor kitchens.”

Tatro says the impact of tariffs is presenting a challenge for his company. “With our gas grills, we’ve been able to pivot manufacturing to some countries outside of China, but the outdoor refrigeration category has been hit hard by a 25% tariff,” he says. “Even if a product is not on the tariff list, tariffs may have hurt the factory where it’s made, so companies have to find other sources.”

Another challenge Tatro observes is a growing income gap in his region, a factor that may dampen the market for outdoor living products. “We have a dynamic territory, ranging from some of the wealthiest areas in the world to some of the poorest,” he says. “In California, the cost of living is very high, and a large part of the middle class is so saddled with debt that it’s choking discretionary dollars. The 1% will always have discretionary dollars, but discretionary dollars are squeezed for the greater portion of the middle class.”

In addition, he says issues such as high rents, the drug epidemic, and lack of mental-health treatment in the region are combining to create an increasing homeless population in some of his territory. “The situation is causing real problems for some retailers,” he says. “People are living on the street right in front of stores, and these shop owners literally have to hose human feces off the sidewalk every morning. This is a growing problem up and down the entire West Coast – in Seattle, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.”

He says the situation scares away shoppers, who opt to buy goods online instead of venturing into the impacted stores. “The lost income to the local economy only compounds these societal problems,” says Tatro. “The homeless crisis is primarily being ignored by people we’ve elected and has been disguised as a housing issue.”

As for next year, the distributor is “always optimistic,” despite the trepidation he says historically comes in an election cycle. “People tend to hold onto their money (in an election year), so you never know what to expect,” he says. “But we have great brands that continue to innovate and bring products to market that people want. You can only focus on what you have control over.”

Bob Wilk.

Robert L. Wilk, President, Robert L. Wilk Inc.

Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia

Before becoming an independent manufacturer’s rep 10 years ago, Bob Wilk spent more than two decades as the general manager, and barbecue, fireplace, and lawn-and-garden products buyer for a retail business with two stores in Michigan. That vantage point lends a distinct advantage when working with dealer partners today, as a representative for multiple lines of outdoor living products.  

“My customers realize I have been in their shoes,” he says. “They know I have sat on their side of the table and understand what they need. Because of that, they are comfortable asking for advice and sharing information with me.”

Wilk says grill sales were “off a little bit” in the Midwest this year, due to wet spring conditions that didn’t improve until late in the season. Fortunately, pleasant weather with temperatures in the 80s and 90s extended into the fall and delivered a strong sales resurgence that helped mitigate early-season losses. “We were surprised to see grills still moving well in September and October,” he says.

According to Wilk, mid-priced grills sell best in his region. “Consumers are looking for value,” he says. His grill sales break out 60% built-ins, 40% on carts.  

“We’re starting to see more and more outdoor kitchens,” he says. “It’s definitely happening in areas along Lake Michigan where there are a lot of multimillion-dollar homes. These homeowners want a showy outdoor kitchen setup.”  

The outdoor-living trend is even moving beyond the backyard, according to Wilk. He has seen a growing number of outdoor kitchens being built into RV parks near Lake Michigan. “People own their RV spot and go back year after year, so they want to add an outdoor kitchen for their personal use,” he explains. “They pull their $200,000 RV into the spot and they have their outdoor kitchen setup right there so they can enjoy the lifestyle.

“Sometimes retailers question how many outdoor kitchens they can sell and hesitate to put them on the floor,” Wilk continues. “But there are lots of opportunities to make a sale, and every sale is a big sale. The thing is, you have to show the product on your sales floor and on your website to inspire the dream for your customers.”

His dealers have indicated that kamado grill sales have been softer this year, but the category is helped by ongoing sales of charcoal and accessories. Wilk also has seen a “growing influx” of pellet grills in his territory. “Customers are moving into second-generation pellet grills now,” he says. “People are ready to trade up to higher-priced pellet models.”

He says his sales of TEC infrared grills have been steady. Wilk points out that, although cooking on an infrared grill requires a little more training, once consumers master it, they are very satisfied. “TEC has the advantage of a wider temperature range compared to other infrared grills. You can turn the heat down 75% to 80% to cook at lower temperatures,” he says. “It’s a high-quality line without a lot of frills, which is exactly what people are looking for. They want value, and the fact that it’s made in the USA is a big selling point.”

Wilk says accessories are trending. “They are a strong part of the barbecue business today,” he says. “Accessories like wood-chip holders, pizza racks, and other gear, keep people coming back to see what’s new. People will spend money on them.”

He says consumables are another important part of the product mix. “Customers want good charcoal and keep returning to buy it,” he says. “Or they see 10 varieties of cooking-wood pellets and come back to try the alder pellets and the cherry wood pellets, and all the other different types. It’s important for dealers to stock these kinds of items, so customers don’t need to go anywhere else for them.”

According to Wilk, fire tables remain a “very strong” category. “Fire tables of all different heights are – pardon the pun – hot,” he says. “The category is very easy to sell. Likewise for deep-seating outdoor living room sets.”  

He says his most successful dealers pay attention to marketing and promotion, and try to tie in with community events. “One dealer drives traffic by participating in a local classic car show,” Wilk says. “He demonstrates a variety of grills to introduce people to all the different options. He has good signage and does a giveaway item, like a grill brush, in a nice bag with the store’s logo. As retailers, we often get too busy and forget about promoting outside the store, but these community events are effective.”

He says cross-promoting with other local businesses also works. “One dealer partnered with a high-end meat market and gave customers a $50 gift certificate to spend on meat with the purchase of a grill. The dealer split the cost of the gift certificate with the butcher, which made the promotion very cost-effective.”

Wilk adds that having a good website is critical. “Today, everyone starts the shopping process online and checks out your website before coming into the store,” he says. “Your website is the first introduction to your business. You need to keep it up-to-date, make it easy to navigate, and hook people with photos and videos that will attract their attention.

“OW Lee has fantastic videos of fire tables with flickering flames and glasses of wine set on top. It paints a picture and creates a dream for the customer.” Wilk also suggests creating a photo gallery, both in the store and on the website, to showcase completed projects. “It helps people see what’s possible in their backyard,” he says.

Wilk says finding good employees to fill sales, installation, and delivery positions is the “biggest obstacle” facing his dealers today. “It’s been a tough go for many of them,” he says. “With unemployment so low, it’s hard to find people with the skills to do these jobs, or who necessarily even want to do these jobs. Sometimes a dealer will bring someone in and the person will only last a day or two. It’s difficult.”

Wilk says the challenge of online competition has “calmed down a bit,” thanks to “manufacturers having good MAP policies in place.” In addition, he believes new laws requiring online sellers to collect state taxes are further helping to level the playing field for brick-and-mortar retailers. “Retailers don’t seem to be as upset about Internet competition recently,” he says.

Wilk is “cautiously optimistic” about 2020. “It’s an election year and that always comes into play,” he says. “But I’m expecting a good year.”

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