Outdoor Kitchens rebound
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, November 1, 2009
People at large parties always tend to congregate in the kitchen. When the kitchen is outdoors, there's room for everybody.
That's just one of the allures of outdoor kitchens, a category that benefits from the American "staycation" trend.
"Homeowners are continuing to invest in outdoor kitchens because they offer a welcome refuge for family in the back yard and a fun way to entertain at home," said Pete Georgiadis, president of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.
Shiva Noble, Cal Spas' executive vice president, said an outdoor room is ideal for entertaining because guests feel more at ease, and homeowners no longer fret about the inevitable spill on a prized Persian rug.
After the global economic meltdown 15 months ago, outdoor-kitchen makers went into survival mode, adjusted or reconfirmed their marketing strategies, and watched their category start to rebound — measured by inches if not by yardsticks.
"Like many items today that involve discretionary spending, the category has been impacted," said Dan Shimek, president/CEO of The Outdoor GreatRoom Company. "Consumers want more value, more bang for the buck. We are working to deliver this through added options and new materials.
"Additionally, people buy from people, and the key to success is providing great products and outstanding customer service," Shimek said. "Many consumers want to have it their way, and one way we fulfill this need is by doing custom outdoor kitchens the way they want them."
"Customized" has become as magic a word as "staycation."
Ted Scott, national sales manager for Napoleon Appliance Corporation, reflected on business this year. "January and February were slow months as the economic shock hit everyone in Canada and the USA," Scott said. "March was a different story as sales picked up, and consumers of our product decided to spend more time at home. Grills and outdoor rooms have done very well.
"With the slow rebounding economy, we are optimistic to a good 2010."
Mike Kempster, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Weber-Stephen Products, agreed 2009 started slowly. "Our research shows that the entire grill industry's unit sales were off by 15% during the first and second quarters of this year," Kempster said. "While spending on new grills overall may be down this year, our primary research shows that outdoor grill owners report they are spending significantly more time grilling at home than they did even two or three years ago. The outdoor room has been increasingly popular since the beginning of this decade, and it's become even more popular as Americans take more staycations."
Unprecedented woes in the U.S. housing and banking industries also had a ripple effect on outdoor kitchen manufacturers, but sales finally seem to be stabilizing.
"As with pretty much all industries, the high-end grill and outdoor-kitchen industry has taken a hit," Doug Pryor of Twin Eagles Gas Grills said. "A lot of the outdoor kitchens were being financed by home equity lines of credit, delayed financing and low-interest rate promotions. That is gone. Another segment, new home buyers, has drastically dropped. These customers weren't being whittled away; they were chopped off all at once."
Still, he thinks another 30% of consumers "have the means to purchase an outdoor kitchen but are nervous to spend the money," Pryor said. "They will return as their confidence in the economy returns."
Through tough or good times, Bull Outdoor Products keeps the same strategy.
"We have a model and a product line that works well in all economic climates — offer a quality product, show value, stand behind the product and stay in stock," said Frank Mello, vice president of sales and marketing for Bull Outdoor Products. "It's not that complicated, but it's hard for many people to implement. We work hard at it, and our customers have rewarded us for it."
Mello predicts slow, steady growth and a continued demand for outdoor kitchens.
Judith Sisler Johnston, president of the award-winning Sisler Johnston Interior Design in Jacksonville, Fla., said the outdoor living category has become more streamlined — people are not decorating, nor spending, as elaborately.
"People want to extend their interior spaces to the outdoors, and that will continue," she said. But customers in this economy are cutting back. "They want to know what they can do for less. We tell people to reduce quantities but don't lower the quality. Remember, these things are going to be exposed to the elements. Buy pieces that are going to last."
Jerry Ponzo of Back Yard Dream said outdoor kitchens are a good investment.
"You can build these outdoor areas for less than adding onto your house," he said, "and your property taxes will not be raised."
For manufacturers, survival has been worthy of admiration, he said.
"Like any other construction trade, [the recession] has weeded out the unstable companies," Ponzo said. "You're dealing with a company surviving the worst economy since the Great Depression. This has to say something about the company being able to survive and continue in such down times."
Poised to have product ready when pent-up demand is released, companies have a bevy of new products. For example, Cook Number Grills including a black porcelain model and updated technologies from The Outdoor GreatRoom Company; a completely redesigned 26-piece cabinet line and next-generation Outdoor Pizza Oven in spring 2010 from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, and the Oasis Modular Island Series from Napoleon in which customers design their island configuration choosing from one of 14 different grills. Back Yard Dream is combining water and fire together as one unit, while Weber Grills will debut an upscale version of the Weber One-Touch charcoal grill plus new accessories, colors and a wood-burning fireplace in 2010.
DCS by Fisher & Paykel is redesigning its Liberty Collection. In January, Bull Outdoor Products begins stocking a new East Coast distribution center with its entire line to reduce shipping costs and lead times. This month, Cal Spas introduces the Cape Cod, a hybrid between a fireplace, fire pit and support column.
Pryor of Twin Eagles noted the multiple appeals of outdoor kitchens. "There is nothing better than to get everyone together and have a comfortable place to hang out," he said. "Next, it adds value to your home. And it is another way for people to express themselves and personalize their homes. It's like a game room. No rules, no standards, no limits — just what you want to express."