That First Taste!
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Early on in the days of backyard barbecuing, people usually started out with a charcoal grill and then “graduated” to gas. These days, that path is often reversed. While gas grills offer hard-to-beat convenience and are ideal for getting dinner on the table fast, some find the food they turn out to be – shall we say – lacking in the flavor and experiential departments.
Some can recall the a-ha moment when they realized the flavor difference cooking over charcoal makes. Whether it was a perfectly seared charcoal-grilled steak, a super-moist kamado-roasted chicken, or a smoked rack of ribs, that first taste inspired an “upgrade” to a charcoal grill, kamado, or smoker, and began a new cooking adventure.
It was a bite of grilled baloney that did it for John McAdams. Twenty years ago, the then-hearth retailer sampled a hunk of lunch meat that had been grill-smoked on a Big Green Egg, and immediately signed on as a dealer of the ceramic kamado grills. He didn’t just sell the product, he lived the lifestyle – cooking multiple times a week for his family, demo-ing the kamado and accessories in his store, and evangelically spreading the good news about the versatile cooker to customers.
He went on to become one of the largest Big Green Egg dealers in Canada before buying the Big Green Egg Canada distributorship in 2017.
X2 Infinity from Grill Dome.
Kamado manufacturer Grill Dome refers to this kind of passion as “OCD” – “obsessive ceramic disorder” – explaining that once someone tastes the juicy results of food cooked in a kamado, they “can’t stop compulsively trying more.” That leads to experimenting with techniques such as long, slow cooking, searing, baking, roasting, and smoking – far more action than a typical gas grill would see.
For a good decade-long run, backyard chefs became kamado converts in droves. The cookers enjoyed “it-grill” status and pioneered a broader resurgence in cooking with charcoal and other solid fuels. But, as with everything, popularity is cyclical. Currently, pellet grills are the cookers-du-jour and have reportedly taken a bite out of kamado sales the past couple of years. Pellet people enjoy the gas-grill-like, push-button convenience, Wi-Fi-connected smart-app controls, and the automated path to wood-smoke flavor.
However, it’s for the exact opposite reason – pure simplicity – that many remain devoted to their kamados and other types of charcoal-fueled grills, and why the category still remains a hot seller at specialty retail stores.
“The beauty of the product lies in its simplicity,” says Ardy Arani, CEO/managing director of Big Green Egg, the kamado category leader since Ed Fisher founded the brand nearly four decades ago. “True, you don’t push a button, but if you look beyond that, you’ll see it’s natural, with no mechanical apparatus, and so easy to use. It heats up in minutes – about the same as every other type of grill – but the thermal properties of the ceramics are superior, so heat stays inside the vessel, unlike a metal grill.
“You don’t have to clean out a clogged auger box or worry about electronics failing. (A kamado) may be more expensive initially, but not when you consider that a pellet grill’s motor and controls will eventually burn out and need to be replaced.”
In fact, it’s the hands-on interaction – something most kamado enthusiasts consider more fun than work – that drives the culture and lifestyle, according to Tom Tarantin, president of Tarantin Industries, a wholesale distributor of barbecue grills, including Big Green Egg.
“People who want convenience go for pellet grills,” he says, “or if they want quick and easy, they go for gas grills. With a gas grill, you turn it on, cook for 10 minutes, turn it off, and you’re done. A kamado is not like that. It’s a lifestyle and an experience. People enjoy the process as much as the flavor and moisture.”
Tarantin describes the brand’s devotees as a “cult-like following,” and says, “If I wear a Big Green Egg shirt in an airport, a half-dozen people will stop and talk to me about it. You don’t get that with a regular grill.”
Oval 400 in a wooden cart by Primo Grills.
Nick Bauer, president of Empire Comfort Systems, believes the kamado category “is still very viable” with plenty of marketshare to go around. The maker of Broilmaster gas grills and American Hearth and White Mountain Hearth products, bought Primo Ceramic Grills from the brand’s founder and owner George Samaras last October. “The brand is a natural fit because it meshes with our company’s core tenants: a family business with North American-based manufacturing,” he says. “This is a growth-based acquisition. We’re confident we can grow the marketshare for Primo.”
Bauer says adding the brand to the Empire family will be advantageous for dealer partners. “There are synergies here that will provide efficiencies for Primo dealers, bring freight costs down, and reduce the amount of product they have to order and inventory,” he says. “We want to help our dealers simplify their business.”
Bauer says his company will spend the next several months listening to Primo customers about their wants and needs. “We will not be messing with the features, warranty, and other aspects they love, but we have ideas for new products and accessories that we expect to introduce later this year.”
Innovation and Differentiation
Indeed, kamado manufacturers have introduced a wealth of unique and innovative product features to keep the category fresh and distinguish their brands among others in an increasingly crowded field.
Icon Kamados have optional, patented QuickChange Inserts that can be swapped in and out to switch between charcoal, gas, and pellet fuels on the same ceramic kamado chassis. “Consumers have the flexibility to choose the fuel depending on their mood, their menu, and whether they want a quick weeknight dinner or are relaxing and entertaining,” says Scott Walters, executive vice president, Sales and Marketing. “For dealers, the QuickChange Inserts make great conversation starters, generate excitement in the store, and become a supplemental sale.”
The company’s QuickChange Pellet Insert was inspired by growing consumer interest in pellet grills, according to Walters, and offers the best of both worlds. The unit has turnkey features similar to a pellet grill, including an integrated auger and precise, digital temperature controls between 150 to 800 degrees that can be managed wirelessly via an app.
But the ceramic construction retains heat and maintains cooking temperatures “no matter what the conditions are outside,” he says. “We tested our product in Canada and had amazing reviews. It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside with snow on the ground, and cooking temps exceeded 600 degrees and remained steady without a thermal blanket. Our Canadian dealers can’t wait to get their hands on this.”
The latest of Kamado Joe’s numerous innovations is its patented “SlōRoller” hyperbolic smoke chamber insert. The technology, developed by a team of Harvard researchers, is currently available on the company’s new Classic III and Big Joe III grills. The insert creates cyclonic airflow inside the grill, causing smoke and heat to revolve around food up to 20 times more than on other grills to deliver more even heat distribution and better smoke flavor. “It’s not just new, it’s scientifically better,” according to CEO Bobby Brennan.
Named one of the best new products of 2019 by AmazingRibs.com, the Slow ’N Sear Kamado Grill from Adrenaline Barbecue Company, incorporates the patented Slow ’N Sear charcoal basket, a long-popular aftermarket accessory for kamados and charcoal kettles. Integrated in the base of the new kamado, the charcoal basket creates simultaneous direct- and indirect-grilling zones, concentrates heat for better searing, improves smoke flavor, and allows easier access to coals for refueling.
Grill Dome ceramic kamados are known for glossy finishes and jewel-like colors. The company offers five standard colors – red, blue, copper, silver and black – as well as numerous custom colors. There is even the option to mix-and-match lids and bases in two different colors, a great sales differential for retailers whose customers like to show team pride.
Big Green Egg introduced a patented, cast-iron cap called the “rEGGulator” that adjusts air flow for more accurate temperature control and holds the setting in place even if the lid is lifted. Now standard on all new EGGs, the cap is also available as a retrofit, and has an optional umbrella-like shield to keep rain out of the vent holes.
Shokunin kamado from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.
More Variations on the Theme
For some kamado manufacturers, building the proverbial better mousetrap has included swapping out traditional ceramic construction for other materials. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s new Shokunin kamado is hand-crafted of stainless steel with ipe wood accents to coordinate with the company’s Arcadia outdoor cabinetry series. “It fits better visually in an outdoor kitchen than a ceramic kamado ever could,” says Russ Faulk, chief designer and Head of Product.
The name Shokunin, which means “master” or “artisan” in Japanese, pays homage to the kamado’s Asian origins and the artisanal nature of live-fire cooking, according to Faulk. The rectangular shape is designed to facilitate multi-zone fires and indirect cooking, while the taller profile accommodates three different levels for building the fire.
The lowest position, furthest from the cooking grid, is ideal for low-and-slow barbecuing; the middle level – the approximate location of the fire grate in most kamado brands – is for roasting; and the highest position, just four inches below the cooking grid, is for searing. All cooking grids and fire grates can be flipped open for easy access when lighting, adding coals and cleaning up.
Two inches of insulation between double-walled stainless steel keeps the exterior cool to the touch, provides greater fuel efficiency, and maintains steady temperatures between 200° and 1,000°F. In tests, a full load of charcoal held 225-degree temperatures for 65 hours.
20" Cast Aluminum Kamado from Blaze Outdoor Products.
Solid cast-aluminum stands in for ceramics on the Blaze Outdoor Products kamado, a material offering similar heat retention, but greater durability. Another innovation: the lid and base fit together with a unique tongue-and-groove seal, eliminating the need for a traditional gasket that often needs replacing. The cooker is also designed to incorporate an optional rotisserie in the base.
Everdure by Heston Blumenthal introduced the 4K, a cast-aluminum kamado available in six colors. The app-enabled smart cooker uses a series of grill and meat probes to maintain cooking temperatures and monitor doneness. The four-legged base of the tall, angular kamado incorporates a handy storage drawer to stow the pizza stone, tongs, grid lifter, and other accessories that come standard with the grill.
The Broil King Keg has a double-walled steel body that is thermally efficient, but does not absorb or transfer odors like porous ceramic materials. The lightweight cooker is easily maneuverable and, with a trailer-hitch adaptor in place, can even be transported to a tailgate or on vacation.
Available in stainless steel or three powder-coated color finishes, the Caliber Pro Kamado has triple-layered insulation and a patented flue system to retain heat and moisture, while using 40% less lump charcoal. It weighs 75 lbs., approximately one-third of the weight of traditional ceramic cookers. At 460 lbs., Golden’s Cast Iron Kamado is at the opposite end of the weight scale. Crafted from American-made cast iron, it is virtually indestructible and comes fully assembled with a patented, integrated, cast hinge system.
36″ Charcoal Grill from Coyote Outdoor Living.
Charcoal’s on Fire
While kamados often steal the spotlight, charcoal-fueled grills and smokers of all types are enjoying a renaissance and increasingly being included in outdoor kitchens as a companion to a gas grill. Accordingly, most premium grill manufacturers have now added charcoal-fueled appliances to their lineups.
Coyote Outdoor Living now offers three charcoal models, including its stainless-steel 36-inch Charcoal Grill; a Hybrid Grill with side-by-side charcoal and gas grill heads; and the Asado Cooker, a traditional kamado-style ceramic grill. “More consumers wish to include multiple types of cooking appliances in their outdoor kitchens,” says president Jim Ginocchi. “We want to have something for everyone.”
Bison Premium Charcoal Grill from Bull Outdoor Products.
Bull Outdoor Products offers the stainless-steel Bison Premium Charcoal Grill, available on a cart base or as a built-in. Twin Eagles’ Charcoal Grill, with height-adjustable charcoal tray and a double-walled hood, sports seamless welds and polished accents just like its gas grills. The stainless-steel, smart Sonoma Smoker from Lynx features Bluetooth app-enabled controls.
Technology is a differentiating feature of the new Masterbuilt Gravity Series 560 Grill + Smoker. The patent-pending cooker offers the flavor and high temperatures of a charcoal grill, with the ease and convenience of a propane or pellet grill. Its unique “GravityFed” vertical hopper holds enough charcoal to grill or smoke for up to 15 hours without refilling. Cooking temperatures, ranging from 225° to 700°F, are maintained and controlled by a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled thermostat, and proprietary thermostatic DigitalFan technology.
Gravity Series 560 Grill + Smoker from Masterbuilt.
While technology is helping to make charcoal grilling as convenient as cooking with gas or pellets, for many, it’s the back-to-basics, interactive experience that’s part of charcoal-grilling’s appeal. Cooking with charcoal – whether in a grill, kamado, or smoker – fits in with a growing interest in other “old-fashioned,” nostalgic, hands-on pursuits such as embroidery, vinyl records, produce gardening, and canning.
This trend is helping drive a rebirth for the Portable Kitchens (a.k.a. PK). First introduced in 1952, today’s PK charcoal grill maintains the original rectangular shape and heavy, cast-aluminum construction, but is now available in several colors and with a host of available accessories. The classic grill again caught the attention of backyard grillers after being used by the winners of the Steak Cookoff Association World Championship for four years running.
Portable Kitchens 360 Grill & Smoker.
“It’s a beloved product but not that many people know about it, so we are working on building awareness,” says chief Marketing officer Scott Moody. “Millennials have a ‘buy-it-for-life’ attitude, so the fact that PK lasts forever, resonates with them. It’s also trendy with the 35- to 55-year-old grill-nerd guys, and gaining traction across all incomes and education levels.” That's why it's referred to as a “classic.”
Growing a Mature Market
That kind of news is encouraging to specialty barbecue retailers, because people who cook on charcoal-fueled grills, smokers, and/or kamados tend to return to the store often. Each visit to replenish lump charcoal, fire-starters, and wood chips, brings an opportunity to sell the enormous selection of aftermarket accessory products, and hearth and patio products as well.
“Smart retailers commit to selling charcoal and accessories,” says Arani. “These products help build the camaraderie and ongoing relationships that keep customers coming back to you as a resource for advice and suggestions about new techniques. Maybe a customer tries the pizza accessories. They come back and say, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ and you can say, ‘Did you know you can grill breakfast with this Half-Moon Plancha Griddle?’”
A Large Big Green Egg.
That’s exactly the modus operandi of Stephen “Ruff” Ruffatti, owner of Ruff’s Barbeque Shoppe in Golden, Colorado. “Our Big Green Egg business has doubled this year because we decided to sell them, not just carry them,” Ruffatti explains. “My son and grandson are big into social media. They use it to promote the EGG and all the related accessories, and teach people how to use them.” Ruffatti credits this social-media campaign and stepped-up in-store education efforts with increasing sales.
Other retailers organize festivals and cook-offs to educate customers, build camaraderie, and fuel passion for charcoal grills and kamados. The experiential events, something experts say would never fly with gas grills, generate traffic and sales.
Awareness of the kamado category was further boosted this year after Big Green Egg partnered with Ace Hardware, and the independent retail co-op featured EGGs extensively in its national television commercials. In addition, Big Green Egg has launched its own television ads, which Arani says effectively send consumers to the company’s dealer-locator page.
“We’re hearing from dealers that the advertising has been tremendous for their business,” says Tarantin. “People will come in and say, ‘Oh, I saw that on TV!’”
Arani hopes to build on that effort with an e-commerce platform to sell Big Green Eggs directly to consumers. “More and more consumers prefer to shop from their living room,” he says. “We want to offer that convenience, while protecting our dealers.”
Daniel Boone from Green Mountain Grills.
The soon-to-launch platform allows consumers to research and purchase online directly from Big Green Egg. The company processes the transaction, but a local dealer – determined by location, inventory availability, and other factors – assembles and delivers the product and gets paid for the sale.
After beta testing is complete, Arani says the platform will scale nationally throughout 2020. By end of year, he says a click-and-collect system is expected to be in place, allowing the consumer to specify the dealer they wish to work with locally.
“We are in no way competing with dealers; we are collaborating,” explains Arani. “We understand the challenge of running a brick-and-mortar operation and want to be supportive. Some manufacturers will say MAP policy protects dealers and levels the field with online competitors. But even with MAP protection, every sale that doesn’t go through the dealer is a sale the dealer doesn’t get. With our e-commerce platform, the dealer essentially makes the sale and gets the profit as if it was sold from their sales floor.”
Clearly, there is a lot that’s new and exciting in charcoal grills, kamados, and smokers. Feature them in store displays, position them as a grilling skill “upgrade,” promote them in your social media classes and events, and watch sales grow. Don’t forget that vast variety of accessories is a great draw.