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Hearth & Home July 2020

Behind the scenes of The Big Green Egg Grilling Show.
Photo Courtesy: ©2020 big green egg.

BBQ Demos, Classes and Events

By Lisa Readie Mayer

What is their place in a post-corona world?

Even after passing the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, studies show people are likely to remain skittish about being in crowded places.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that more than half of Americans would not feel ready to return to sporting events, concerts, movies, or amusement parks until a coronavirus vaccine is available, and 40% said they were willing to wait even if it takes more than a year for the vaccine to emerge.

These concerns run across all consumer age groups. A report from TruePublic reveals 55% of Millennial consumers are eager to return to restaurants “as soon as isolation ends,” but would “wait a while” before traveling or returning to movie theaters, gyms, concerts, sporting events, or festivals. They say they would prefer to gather in smaller groups at home instead.

The Future for Festivals and Events

This desire to stay close to home and away from crowds may turn out to be a boon for barbecue and outdoor living retailers if consumers purchase grills, outdoor kitchens, fire pits, and patio furnishings to outfit their backyards for family enjoyment. But it could also upend some of retailers’ most effective vehicles for marketing these products: in-store demos, cooking classes, events, and festivals.

“The government may say we’re open again, but society is not going to be racing back out into crowds,” says Chef JJ Boston, of Chef JJ’s, a barbecue cooking school, event space, and retail store in Indianapolis. “Many of the events we had booked earlier this year have been rescheduled for August. But even then, will customers feel comfortable attending group cooking classes? Will companies use us for employee team-building events like they used to? Will people come to us to host their anniversary parties and birthday parties? This is still very tenuous.”

Like Boston, barbecue retailers across the country are wondering about the future of their demos and other group experiences in a post-corona world.

When In-Person Events Paused, They Pivoted

With in-person classes, corporate bookings, and private events canceled, Boston pivoted, creating an online education program on his store’s YouTube channel. His twice-weekly classes have covered topics such as Breakfast on the Grill, Mexican Family Meals, and Appetizers and Desserts, while shorter videos delved into tips and techniques, such as “How to Control the Temperature on a Kamado.” The content was free, but Boston invited the hundreds of viewers to send tips through the Venmo mobile payment app for his employees, who used the money to pay rent and other expenses.

“The video classes allowed me to help my employees and still engage with customers,” he says.

The Culinary Center at Big Green Egg corporate headquarters outside Atlanta, shut down amidst the coronavirus crisis and switched to free online cooking videos.

The fate of the company’s annual Eggtoberfest, an annual festival in October that attracts 3,000 “Egghead” attendees and 400 cooks for demos, live music, and lots of food sampling, remains uncertain as of this writing. Many of the dozens of local Eggfests, hosted by retailers and distributors throughout the country, are taking a hiatus this year; however, some that are scheduled for late summer and fall may be able to go on as planned, according to Jodi Burson, director of Brand Enhancement.

To fill the void, Big Green Egg held a virtual Eggfest on Instagram with 11 influencers, aka “Team Green,” taking turns broadcasting live cooking demos, tips, and how-to sessions from their backyards. One segment about baking a cookie in a cast-iron skillet racked up more than 12,000 views. According to Burson, “This was a way to let Eggheads virtually experience the camaraderie and fun of an Eggfest.”

During the shutdown, barbecue and patio furniture retailer-distributor Outdoor Home, in Nixa, Missouri, created the “Stay @ Home Live Cooking Show” airing daily on Facebook and YouTube. Staff members took turns hosting the free segments filled with recipe demos, grilling tips, and other engaging content. The store promoted the live classes through social media and in daily emails to customers.

“As a business, we want to advertise and market where the customer is,” explains Aaron Swaggerty, Internet marketing specialist at Outdoor Home. “Now people are home a lot, so we’re focused on engaging them there, using social media, video consultations, and Zoom demos. We remind customers that they might have to stay at home, but they don’t have to stay inside.”

The virtual cooking classes, just like in-person sessions, incorporate rubs, wood chips, accessories, and other products sold in the store, driving “a lot” of phone and online orders for delivery or pick-up, according to vice president of Sales and Business Development, Kenny Minor.

Minor says they are “waiting to see how things shake out” before deciding to proceed with Outdoor Home’s annual Eggfest in September, the store’s biggest sales day of the year. “The technology is there to do it online if need be,” he says, “but we’re trying to assess whether people will get the same enjoyment if they can’t interact and taste the food. An Eggfest is about building community and camaraderie. We have to determine if that can happen virtually.”

Dan Marguerite, owner of Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, Illinois, replicated the in-store shopping experience through a series of online videos discussing the features and benefits of each grill model on his sales floor. He launched a YouTube channel for grilling demos, including one on how to make pizza in a Big Green Egg, Kalamazoo Artisan Fire Pizza Oven, Alfa Oven, Gozney Roccbox, and Weber SmokeFire Pellet Grill.

He moved his in-store cooking classes to YouTube, teaching viewers how to grill basics such as steaks, chicken, pizza, and cedar-planked salmon, while spotlighting dry rubs and other products sold in the store. He hosted live question-and-answer sessions about kamado cooking on the virtual meeting platform Zoom.

He is also considering live Zoom cooking classes, where customers could either purchase the list of ingredients on their own, or preorder them from Backyard Barbecue Store for curbside pickup. “For a class on how to reverse-sear steaks, for instance, we would offer a preorder kit with two nice steaks, rubs, maybe another accessory,” he says. “The customer would get the fire going before tuning in to the class, and we would prep and cook together.”

The online efforts generated an uptick in sales (with curbside pick-up) of charcoal grills, charcoal fuels, and grilling accessories, according to Marguerite. “People have more time and I think they want to go back to the basics during this turmoil,” he says.

When Marguerite’s eat-in lunch business and private events were put on hold, he began offering carry-out family meals from 4 to 6pm on weekends to keep his chef busy. “These sales have actually been better than our normal lunch business – some days almost double,” he says. “Is this because people are stuck home? Because they like our store and want to support us? If take-out meals are sustainable going forward, we may be rethinking and retooling our business model.”

Marguerite is also wondering how cooking classes and demos might look in the future. “Normally, I’ll have 30 people sign up for a fee of $40 each for a cooking class in the store, and I’ll sell $1,000 worth of accessories after the class,” says Marguerite. “I wonder, when will people want to do that again. The way people shop and socialize may change. I don’t know what to think.”

Making Changes, Moving Forward

Of course, people will eventually want to enjoy in-person events again. In the meantime, retailers, manufacturers, and distributors are planning ways to tweak, or even reinvent, future cooking classes, demos, and in-store group events to ensure customers feel safe, comfortable, and eager to attend.

When private parties and events are expected to resume at his store this summer, Marguerite will position dining tables further apart to create more distance between guests. He will do likewise for cooking-class work stations.  

“People can avoid crowded public spaces if they have a private event here,” he says. “We can offer advantages to hosting a party at a restaurant, and we will, for sure, communicate those messages in our marketing.”

He says the store’s in-person classes are typically instructional demos, not hands-on, and that will remain. For the private and corporate events that request hands-on involvement, Marguerite will take added steps to ensure participants’ safety. He has also begun thinking about safer ways to sample food, including how to cut and serve tasting samples to eliminate contamination risks.

“I’ve always been crazy about food safety,” he says. “I go through so many gloves during a class and always give them to attendees to use. I even use gloves when I’m cooking at home!”

The Culinary Center at Big Green Egg headquarters will limit class sizes and switch to demonstration-style, rather than hands-on instruction, according to Burson. When hands-on classes eventually resume, Burson says each student will have his or her own designated Egg, ingredients, and tools, eliminating the need to share items.

She believes the Big Green Egg 101 virtual classes implemented during the Covid-19 crisis will continue to be offered, “so anyone can attend online, no matter where they live.” Burson says, “So much of the experience of owning an Egg is wanting to learn and try new accessories and techniques. We want the online experience to drive traffic to dealers for further education, so people learn to use and enjoy their Eggs more.”

Minor says, “We know customers will only return to the showroom to shop and for classes when they are ready, so we want to make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable, whether that means wearing gloves and facemasks, practicing social distancing, or whatever it takes.

“But we also believe there will be a shift in customer expectations,” he says. “In the future, customers will expect the online options we offered during the crisis. I think our store will start leaning-in to virtual appointments, video chats, and online orders with curbside pickup. If customers’ anxieties regarding in-person classes and events linger, we may still offer the option of online classes. This is all uncharted territory, but businesses would be wise to get ahead of the game.”

Boston stopped hosting large-scale festivals and events a couple years ago. “In my opinion, big events are not the best business model,” he says. “They are fun for attendees, but I’m a business, not a party.” Instead, he will continue to focus on small-group classes, private parties, and corporate events.

“I think, going forward, people will be interested in who has the safest environment to have an event,” Boston says. “Where can they spread out more? Who has the best sanitation practices?”

Improving Food Safety and Sanitation

The pandemic has definitely heightened consumers’ concerns about stores’ and restaurants’ cleaning and sanitizing efforts. People are watching, and they’re not shy about shaming establishments that don’t follow best practices, even posting photos on social-media of employees not wearing gloves or masks, and other slip-ups.

Reviewing and improving safe food-handling and sanitation practices is a smart move for retailers looking to resuscitate in-store cooking classes, demos, and events.

“I was a restaurant chef and a corporate chef before I was a retailer, so I understand that cleanliness and food safety are critical,” says Boston. “If you make someone sick, your store, your brand, your reputation is done. You have to be willing to take your mom or your client through your store’s kitchen.

“Often, when retailers first start doing demos and classes, they are not professionally trained in food safety,” Boston continues. “It’s like driving 60 in a 25 miles-per-hour zone.”

He recommends all staff involved with cooking or serving food at store demos, classes, or events be trained in food-safety best practices. Classes are often offered by state or county health departments, and are also available online.

It is important to review your county’s health department safety standards regarding the internal temperatures of food, hot food holding temps, cold storage, hand-washing, proper sanitizing of tools, prep and serving gear, and more. Since regulations vary by county, you will need to follow the prevailing rules if your store participates in off-premise festivals, cookoffs, community events, home shows, or state fairs in a different county.

“It’s all about education,” says Boston. “You must know about cross-contamination risks. You have to know how to use gloves properly. If you’re not changing gloves repeatedly, and going through a box of gloves every couple of days, you’re not doing it right. Learn the right way, practice, and it becomes muscle memory.

“You shouldn’t be thinking about meeting the minimum standard, but the highest standard of safety,” cautions Boston. “You just cannot make people sick.”

What About Sampling?

A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but every barbecue retailer knows, a tasty bite of hot-off-the-grill food, is worth much more.

So now what? Can sampling – arguably the best and most effective part of a store demo – still happen in the aftermath of Covid-19?

Initially, it’s probably best to follow the lead of Costco and Trader Joes, and temporarily suspend food sampling during open-to-the-public store demos. Cooking classes and private events are controlled and limited in size, so tasting can be more easily and safely managed in those settings.

When it makes sense to reintroduce sampling at demos again, experts at the FDA and Cooperative Extension System say there are steps retailers can take to ensure safety.

Beyond the local health department’s already mandated food-safety practices, anyone preparing food should wear facemasks along with protective gloves. The kitchen, indoor and outdoor prep and serving areas, and all high-touch surfaces such as grill handles, door handles, tables and chairs, should be sanitized frequently throughout the demo. Hand sanitizer should be available at each tasting station for customers to use.

Rather than having customers take a sample from the cutting board, the experts recommend samples be precut or pre-portioned into bite-size pieces and served in individual, single-use paper plates, cups, or napkins by staff members. Staff members should also place toothpicks or utensils into samples so customers do not reach into a shared container to select a toothpick or plastic fork, or spoon.

Likewise, nix the self-serve on barbecue sauces and rubs. Employees should pour and serve samples in small disposable cups.

And finally, all food samples should be kept covered or protected by sneeze guards.

Some of these steps may seem extreme in an industry better known for informality and fun, but as Dan Marguerite says, “Welcome to a new world.”

Burson adds further perspective: “Classes and events will recover as people become more comfortable being together and sharing together again. That feeling will come back. It’s human nature for people to want to share meals and experiences again. This too shall pass.”

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