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Cinde W. Ingram

Fire Stone's Outdoor GreatRooms finding more interest from home builders

John and Corinne Mutchler plan to open the first Fire Stone Home Products retail store next month in Gulf Shores, Ala.

Although the couple considered retirement following lengthy careers in sales and retail, the pair was drawn back into it because of the inclusive outdoor living concept provided by Dan Shimek, Fire Stone president and CEO. “Our store will be focusing totally on the Outdoor GreatRoom,” John said.

Shimek said Fire Stone is interested in dealers like the Mutchlers who want to offer complete one-stop shopping packages, which the Minneapolis-based manufacturer offers in good, better and best categories to provide a range of pricing and options.

“A consumer has no idea this is available and they need the visuals to see it and say, 'I could have that,'” he said.

The Fire Stone concept stems from the growing trend of people entertaining in their backyards. A 2007 study by NPD Group found eight out of 10 consumers prefer outdoor entertaining over indoor. A recent AIA Home Design Trends survey also confirmed the growing outdoor living trend.

Shimek witnessed increased interest last fall when he served on a three-member panel at the National Home Builders Association meeting at Harvard University. He saw big builders, remodelers, electric companies and home improvement retailers, including The Home Depot and Lowe's, paying serious attention to the outdoor living category.

“Previously they didn't think it was sizable enough but now they think it has become a big enough component of what is going on,” Shimek said. He saw keen interest in outdoor kitchens, a big category by itself, and in outdoor living rooms.

“We've made it easy to customize your outdoor living area with style,” Shimek said. “We know that the outdoor living room is an extension of luxury living in the home, as customers demand living spaces that reflect their lifestyles right now and we provide the products to support that lifestyle.”

Fire Stone's Tuscany or Cape Cod pergolas, made from all-weather fiberglass, define an outdoor living area in classic maintenance-free style. The Sonoma or Sierra pergolas are made from white cedar and available in a variety of finish colors to complement the home's architecture or extend interior styles beyond the home's walls.

Housing market research shows well-designed outdoor spaces return more than 100% of their cost, demonstrating a strong return on investment. A beautiful and functional outdoor living space can be created in a day and at one-fifth the cost of indoor construction. Builders at the meeting learned how Fire Stone's entire Outdoor GreatRoom can be wrapped into mortgages of new or remodeled homes, said Ross Johnson, vice president of sales, Fire Stone.

“What do is provide an integrated Outdoor GreatRoom package centered by a great fire and a great cooking grill,” Shimek said. For example, the outdoor kitchen design complements the styles of the pergola, fireplace and now outdoor furniture, too. At the International Pool and Spa/Backyard Living Expo late last year, Fire Stone reported good reception of its Ebony & Ivory wicker group, an extension to the Cates Collection that featured Outdura fabric and a swivel/rocker chair. Its Campfire coffee table with crystal fire also attracted attention.

Shimek is confident retailers like the Mutchlers, who have dedicated floor space within their 3,000-sq.-ft. store, will give consumers a 3-D example of the Outdoor GreatRoom concept. Until now, it was “a challenge for somebody in the showroom to envision how to get it in the backyard,” he said.

In addition to showing its integrated Outdoor GreatRooms, Fire Stone is introducing its 2008 Cook Number grills this month at the HPBExpo in Atlanta. Nine new Cook Number gas grills will debut, four finished in porcelain black with stainless trim and four updates of existing grills in 304 grade stainless steel finish. Also debuting is the Tailgator, a 20-inch gas grill that runs on a 1-pound propane tank or a natural gas line.

Two models also are added to the line of Cook Number electric grills. The Jag 20 in black porcelain finish and the CNE20 in gun metal gray finish have the same features as the Legacy 20-inch stainless steel model. Add to those debuts, Fire Stone's Rock 'n' Roll grill cart, a portable grill island on wheels with refrigerator, built-in stereo system and iPod docking station.

Shimek described Fire Stone's infrared heaters as effective because they heat the object not the air and can keep the Outdoor GreatRoom comfortable despite wind. He added they fit into the company's green story, which started through making grills the correct size to fit consumers' needs.

“Our gas grills burn half the gas of competitive grills of the same size,” he said. “There's a misnomer in the industry in that if you go visit a mass merchant store, a 50,000 Btu grill is $500, a 60,000 Btu grill is $600, a 70,000 Btu grill, $700, and on. It's all wrong. It's like stoves used to be in the fireplace industry (with thinking) the more Btus, the better. But it's not right because you'd basically drive everybody out of the home with way too much heat and Btus; it wasn't what was needed.”

To solve the dilemma, Fire Stone worked on right sizing the level of heat to meet consumers' intended use. For example, a 50,000 Btu grill used twice a week would burn about 5 million Btus a year. That's equivalent to using a barrel of crude oil per year. “In one year, there are 10 million gas grills sold so if all those people use grills similar to a Fire Stone grill that burn half the Btus, we'd save 5 million barrels of crude oil in a year,” Shimek said. “And consumers would save more than a billion dollars a year, and they'd only have to get their tanks refilled half as often.”

Facing a greater number of questions related to the green side of the grilling industry during the home builders' Harvard panel made Shimek seek more answers to growing environmental concerns.

“If they actually were to switch to electric grills, it would be about 10% of the consumption instead of half,” he said. “At the same time because of the Cook Number system, they also address concerns about carcinogens because it's controlled cooking; you're not burning food and there's no direct flame exposure so it's a healthier way to grill.”

Naples Collection coffee table with crystal fire burning unit.

Sonoma 10'x10' Outdoor GreatRoom combines with furniture and fire for easy entertaining.

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