By Lisa Readie Mayer
When two of the oldest and biggest names in the barbecue industry recently announced their entry into the pellet category, it was big news. Kingsford, the brand synonymous with charcoal briquettes for a century, launched a nationally available line of wood-pellet fuels in 2018. Then Weber, the market leader in charcoal and gas grills for more than six decades, debuted its SmokeFire pellet grill this year.
The moves made a statement to the industry that the pellet category is mainstream, has significant growth potential, and is here to stay. The stamp of approval from two trusted brands signaled to consumers that pellet cooking is worth a try. The impact is expected to further transform a category that is taking flight.
“Pellet grills are on fire, and when the biggest brands in the barbecue industry enter the space, it legitimizes and validates the category,” says Jeff Thiessen, president of Dansons, manufacturers of Louisiana Grills and Founder’s Series pellet grills for specialty dealers, and Pit Boss grills available at mass retailers.
According to Thiessen, Dansons has experienced annual, double-digit sales increases for years. To keep up with demand, it opened satellite offices in Asia and Paris this year, and purchased a pellet processing plant in Ohio.
“We believe the pellet category will become bigger than gas,” Thiessen says. “Years ago, when gas grills were introduced, people didn’t believe gas would overtake charcoal. But look at what happened. Now we see an absolute shift in the industry toward pellet grills. It’s the fastest-growing grill segment.”
Market research from Statista backs that up. It reports the pellet grill category grew 9.1% between 2015 and 2016, while during the same period, charcoal grills grew 0.5%, gas grills declined -3.1%, and kamados declined -5.5%.
True, the pellet category remains a small part of the industry overall. A 2019 consumer survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) indicates only 3% of grill owners currently own a pellet grill, unchanged from 2017. However, according to HPBA Communications director Emily McGee, the study shows “consumers’ intent to purchase” a pellet grill rose from 11% in 2017, to 16% in 2019. In other words: A lot of people plan to buy a pellet grill.
Founders Series Premier 800 Wood Pellet Grill from Dansons.
The Pathway to Pellet Grills
“Companies such as Traeger and Green Mountain Grills have done a great job of educating the consumer and building awareness of pellet grills through social media, instructional videos, recipes, and other online content,” says Stephen “Ruff” Ruffatti, owner of Ruff’s Barbeque Shoppe in Golden, Colorado. “Once people see they are so easy to use and the food tastes so good, they’re convinced and willing to try.”
According to Ruffatti, pellet grills appeal to gas grillers who desire better wood-smoke flavor but are unwilling to sacrifice convenience. He says a pellet grill’s smart controls, precise temperature settings, and virtually foolproof operation make the transition from gas grilling to wood cooking relatively easy.
“Much of the newfound interest in pellet grills is coming from average Joes who might otherwise never have tried old-school smoking and barbecuing on a smoker or kamado,” says Ryan Neeley, Marketing manager at Camp Chef. “Pellet grilling simplifies the process and the pathway to creating Instagramable cooking moments such as the grilled tomahawk steaks you see all over social media. Our goal is to help the average person cook better food with a limited learning curve required.
“With pellet grills, there is so much versatility – you can grill, sear, slow-cook, do a crawfish boil, make a pizza – that they have eliminated the need for multiple grills,” Neeley says. “Of course, some people are grill junkies and want every type of grill on their patio. But with a pellet grill, you don’t have to. You can have better food with great wood flavor, without breaking the wallet or cluttering up the outdoor living space (with single-purpose grills).”
Woodwind Classic 24 Pellet Grill from Camp Chef.
This year, Camp Chef is expanding its popular Wi-Fi-enabled Woodwind pellet grill line with additional sizes, an optional propane sideburner, and a feature to automatically set smoke levels between zero and 10, depending on the desired flavor profile.
“The pellet grill has revolutionized outdoor cooking because you don’t have to know what you’re doing to get great-tasting food,” explains Brian Eskew, Marketing director of Twin Eagles. “It’s good for people who are intimidated by barbecuing because it eliminates fails. There’s no maintaining the fire or adjusting the vents like with a kamado. Our pellet grill is foolproof and easy to use. Even if you’ve never cooked a beef brisket, you just go to the control panel, select brisket, input the desired level of doneness, and press start. That’s it.”
Twin Eagles’ pellet grill is designed as a hybrid grill. It can cook like an oven with indirect heat at temperatures as low as 140˚F, but with its ceramic-briquette radiant tray in place, the grill can reach temperatures up to 725˚F for direct grilling and searing. The grill also has a solid-fuel tray insert for cooking with wood or lump charcoal, as well as an optional rotisserie. It has an integrated front-load pellet hopper, three temperature probes to monitor grill and food temperatures, and grill controls that can be managed manually on the digital display panel or remotely via an app.
Twin Eagles 36-inch built-in Wood Fired Pellet Smoker & Grill.
Innovations and Advancements
It’s hard to say whether product innovations such as these sparked the recent growth in the pellet grill category, or whether it was the growth in attention, sales, and competition that inspired the plethora of innovations and advancements. But whether it was a chicken or egg scenario, today’s pellet grills are light years ahead of the first appliances introduced by category pioneer Traeger more than three decades ago.
Most of today’s grills have improved auger systems, roomier grill cavities, smoking-to-searing temperature ranges, precise and programmable digital controls, and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability. Many even sport outdoor-kitchen-worthy fit and finishes.
“Increasing competition in the category keeps everyone focused on developing better and more innovative products,” says Thiessen. “It sets the bar much higher.”
He says Dansons currently has over 100 new products in development. The company’s soon-to-be-released crown jewel, the Founders Series, named for company founder and leader Dan Thiessen, has been developed exclusively for the specialty channel. The grills have double-lining for heat retention, heavy-duty construction, five-year warranties, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, and “aggressive price points,” according to Thiessen.
“This is my dad’s passion product and he’s shepherded it through development for four years,” he says. “We showed prototypes at last year’s HPBExpo, continued to refine it, and expect to officially release it this year. We’re very excited about its potential in the specialty space.”
Last year, Coyote Outdoor Living earned a Vesta Award for innovation when it introduced its new stainless-steel pellet grill. Its gravity-fed, integrated, pellet hopper and auger system is designed to make it easy to remove and change the flavor variety of pellet fuel used from cook to cook. The system is also efficient, using 20% fewer pellets than other grills.
“It’s a very versatile outdoor appliance with features that mirror an indoor oven,” according to Jim Ginocchi, company president. The grill has an oven-quality gasket, meat probes to monitor internal temperatures, and Bluetooth-enabled digital controls to set specific cooking temperatures between 200 and 600 degrees for slow-cooking, smoking, roasting, baking and searing. A smoke button adds an extra boost of smoke when desired.
With stainless-steel finishes, sleek designs, and premium quality, Memphis Wood Fire Grills was one of the first pellet grill brands designed to look at home in an outdoor kitchen. Last year, the company introduced its new Beale Street Grill, a moderately-priced line to supplement its premium Memphis Pro and Memphis Elite offerings. The Beale Street line offers the same polished look, precise temperature controls, cooking versatility, and searing capability of its flagship brand, but at a price point accessible to more budgets.
Beale Street Pellet Grill from Memphis Grills.
Broil King Pellet Grills have convenient preset programs for smoking, roasting, and grilling, and Wi-Fi-enabled app controls to set and monitor temperatures between 180° and 600°F. The grills also have reversible cooking grids, a removable ash tray for easy clean-up, and some models have rotisseries.
Landmann’s new kettle-shaped pellet grill, a finalist for the German Design Award, sports a taller profile, enameled finish, side-table, and wind shield. Offered in three sizes, it hits 500°F as easily as low-and-slow temperatures for smoking and barbecuing.
While cooking on kamados, smokers, and charcoal grills involves a “high-touch” experience – definitely part of the appeal for many fans – pellet grills rely on “high-tech” features to do the work and achieve results. In fact, pellet grill manufacturers are continually adding smarter and savvier technological bells and whistles to their products, and using them to differentiate their grills in an increasingly crowded field.
Category leader Traeger recently integrated Amazon Alexa voice-control technology on its smart grills. The voice-command device can select and change grill temperatures, monitor food temperatures, set a timer, check pellet fuel levels, shut down the grill, and activate other functions by verbally asking Alexa to do it.
Weber’s new SmokeFire pellet grill was developed in collaboration with technology-company June, makers of the computer-controlled, indoor-countertop June Smart Oven. Like the June Oven, the grill incorporates software developed to run automated, multi-step, food-specific cooking programs that yield perfect and consistent results. Amazingly, the SmokeFire debuted, not at a barbecue industry trade show, but at the Consumer Electronics Show, last month.
The brain of the grill is the Weber Connect smart-control system. To start, the user inputs the type of food, thickness, desired doneness, and other information on the LCD control panel or on a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled app. Then the technology takes over, guiding the grill chef step-by-step through the entire cooking process.
The system provides precise, real-time updates on grill and food temperatures, and offers an “ETA” on when food will be done. It signals when it’s time to flip food, tells when to remove food from the grill to account for carry-over temperature increases so it reaches the perfect doneness, and even indicates the precise time to wrap meat in tin foil during a long, slow cook.
The technology communicates with four food probes that can be programmed individually for different rare, medium, or well doneness preferences when cooking steaks, or for simultaneously cooking different foods, such as chicken breasts, pork roast, fish, and steak. Initially the technology will offer 30 cook programs, but Weber Grill Master Kevin Kolman says it will be continually and automatically updated as other foods and grilling techniques are programmed into the software.
“We took the time to understand the category and design a product that feels, cooks, looks, and has the quality of a Weber,” says Kolman, who spent more than 800 hours testing prototypes, as well as other brands of pellet grills “to identify areas that need improving.”
In early 2020, the company plans to introduce the Weber Connect Grilling Assistant as a separate smart-grilling accessory product that can be paired with any grill. Integration with voice-activated Alexa is planned for later this year.
Daniel Boone Pellet Grill from Green Mountain Grills.
Moving into Mass, But Better in Specialty
With the amount of complex technology increasingly being incorporated into pellet grills, you would think the specialty channel would have a lock on the category. Not so. Today, pellet grills are sold in warehouse clubs, home improvement centers, and other Big Box retailers, as well as through online marketplaces. Some manufacturers, such as Weber and Traeger, also sell direct to consumers on their own websites.
Some industry experts believe broad distribution has largely been a good thing. “Being in mass channels helps specialty retailers because it grows awareness of the category,” says Thiessen. “Mass retailers might get someone trying a pellet grill for the first time, but specialty retailers get the consumer who is looking to trade up.”
“We love that a lot of competitors have jumped into the market and that pellet grills are more widely available,” says Jason Baker, director of Business Development at Green Mountain Grills. “It proves pellet grilling is not a fad. Big-player marketing dollars bring more eyeballs to the pellet category. We believe a rising tide lifts all boats.
“But that being said, it’s laughable when you go into a Home Depot or other Big Box stores because their employees usually don’t know anything about pellet grills,” he says. “We believe independent retailers are best to educate consumers. They have dedicated employees who know these grills like the back of their hands and understand how to work them. They can explain the complexity of the product and provide customer service after the sale.
“There’s a lot of moving parts on a pellet grill, so the dealer will be tied to the customer for the long term. Our strategy is to sell exclusively through brick-and-mortar retailers. It’s important to dealers to know that we have their back.”
Not surprisingly, retailer Ruffatti also agrees that pellet grills are better suited to the specialty channel. “In my opinion, pellet grills are not yet ready to be a commodity purchase in a Big Box store. Costco and other stores get a lot of returns because people don’t know how to use the grills. When a customer buys something from us, we teach them how to use it and they’re more satisfied. Traeger is still the big dog that brings customers in our door, but really, their goal is to sell grills without (sales)people.”
Baker says Green Mountain Grills helps to support and drive traffic to its specialty dealers with Google ads, social media, and grassroots marketing efforts. This year, the company had success participating in barbecue festivals in Denver, St. Louis, Kansas City, and other cities, partnering with local dealers in each market so consumers can purchase on the spot, or go to the store to buy later.
“At a competition, there aren’t many opportunities to talk to the pitmasters or even to eat the food,” Baker says. “But at a barbecue festival, we can demonstrate the grills and how they operate. We can bring our pitmasters on stage to show that our pellet grills are easy, versatile, and fun, and that you can turn out great food without overwhelming effort.”
Whether it’s the flavor, the convenience, or the smart features that hooks them, consumers are going all-in on pellet grilling. Specialty retailers should be, too.