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Laurie Rudd

Outdoor Kitchens growing in popularity

The Outdoor GreatroomThe Outdoor Greatroom Company makes everything needed to create dream outdoor kitchens, including grills, grill islands, pergolas, furniture, fireplaces, fire pits, lighting and heating products.
Comedian Phyllis Diller is credited with saying, "The best way to get rid of kitchen odors? Eat out!" Although Diller was referring to a different idea of eating out, today's manufacturers and retailers of outdoor kitchens couldn't agree more.
     Giving the indoor kitchen a break with an outdoor option has never been more popular. And, with the long list of design features and functionality, cooking and eating outdoors is certainly no joke.
     From high tech grills and CAD design technology to state-of-the-art construction methods and options galore, outdoor kitchens are making a statement in outdoor spaces nationwide.
     "More and more homeowners are putting in outdoor kitchens," said Anna Papp, owner of Covington, La.-based Outdoor Living Center. "There is a good selection now available from easy to assemble portable islands to components for permanent installations."
     The most recent HGTV-Casual Living survey confirms this observation with 38% of consumers responding that they would include a full outdoor kitchen on their list of ideal products or features when considering a home resort.
     "Outdoor kitchens are going way beyond those of yesterday," said Russ Faulk, vice president of marketing and product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, headquartered in Kalamazoo, Mich. "No longer are they just a grill and storage cabinet. They have the same appliances and creature comforts you would find in an indoor kitchen."
charcoal modelsRobert H. Peterson offers 11 Fire Magic professional grade island grills, available in a variety of sizes of built-in gas or charcoal models.
     Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a pioneer in outdoor kitchens, began making the move beyond grills in 2003 with the introduction of its first generation outdoor kitchen line. Today, the outdoor kitchen segment is a major industry that creates not only an inviting spot for gathering and eating out; but also can add considerably to a home's value.

Start with a grill
     Central to the creation of any kitchen are the accommodations for cooking. For the outdoor kitchen, this begins with the grill area.
     "Our Cook Number grills go into 99% of our outdoor kitchens," said Dan Shimek, president, The Outdoor Great Room Company, based in Eagan, Minn. From there, he describes his company's design philosophy as being either all inclusive or a la carte choices. "We offer options so the customer can fit their specific design requirements and budget," said Shimek.
     Depending on the type of grilling the consumer has in mind, every major grill company now provides options for incorporating its units into the construction of outdoor kitchens. Outdoor Living Center offers customers Fire Magic, Napoleon and Bull units. Komodo style ceramic grills such as Saffire or The Big Green Egg also are being incorporated into outdoor kitchens.
     "Our folks begin with the grills on the floor and work with the customer on what they want," Papp said. "When it comes to outdoor kitchens, it is custom designed."

Add custom components
     After the selection of the grill, the fun begins.
     "The biggest trend in terms of outdoor kitchens is the specialization of products and the creation of design options never before available," Faulk said. "Certainly at the high end of the market, people are looking for specific products to do a certain job."
     Kalamazoo responds to requests for such items as multi-head keg tappers, wine chillers, lobster boil burners and pizza ovens. Recent trends include iPod docking stations or accommodations for market umbrellas. As in building a dream indoor kitchen, options can seem endless not only within the appliances, but also when coupled with all the elements for dressing the outdoor kitchen.
     "In cabinetry alone, Kalamazoo offers 29 choices," Faulk said. "We offer 25 different units in outdoor refrigeration."
     This ability to offer custom components does not necessarily require an engineer on staff for the casual/hearth retailer. Most companies providing components for outdoor kitchens also offer pre-configured layouts as a guide. For The Outdoor Great Room Company, the customization process begins at its plant. "Our outdoor kitchens are engineered and produced using CAD technology so we can produce a consistent product," said Shimek.
     Withstanding the elements is a concern with all outdoor living products. With outdoor kitchens, the components' ability to combat the elements is amplified due to the added functionality required.
     "While our weather-tight cabinetry may cost a little more, you get peace of mind knowing that you can store linens and other items in them without their getting wet," Faulk said. "The rain gutter we engineer around each door and drawer opening actually moves water away from the cabinet's interior. A truly functional outdoor kitchen relies on several pieces working together to make it enjoyable and efficient for the homeowner."

Kalamazoo Outdoor GourmetChicago-based Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet is a comprehensive outdoor kitchen resource, offering hybrid fire and gas-only grills, pizza ovens, weather-tight cabinetry, refrigeration and freezers.
     Pulling the kitchens together and putting on the finishing touches has become an industry in itself. It can be provided by outdoor kitchen manufacturers or by the homeowner's contractor.
     "We offer a variety of stucco, tile and our proprietary Supercast solid precast counter tops," Shimek said. "A large number of our outdoor kitchens are shipped finish-ready, enabling the dealer, contractor or homeowner to finish in materials that match the house or landscape."

Retailing outdoor kitchens
     With the variety of choices in components and constructions, adding outdoor kitchens into the product mix for casual/ hearth product retailers can be exciting, but also require proper education and display accommodation.
     "Product knowledge and the ability to translate a person's cooking and entertaining style into an outdoor kitchen that is custom fit to their needs is crucial for success," Faulk said. "It's not enough to know about a particular product, you have to know how each of them works together to serve the needs of the homeowner."
     Retailers find that it does not always take a major investment in space or dedicated personnel to increase sales of outdoor kitchens. For Papp, an island display has been used in the past, but her sales personnel rely on grills on the floor as a starting point when working with customers. Manufacturers and distributors are available to provide assistance and suggestions as well.
     "By displaying the product and offering a wide variety of options and designs, outdoor kitchens can be presented as a great way to spruce up an old patio or as a great addition to a new outdoor room," Shimek said. "Space required can start as little as 15 square feet; however, most display rooms will cover 150-250 square foot and up."
     Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet finds its most successful retailers are those who dedicate enough space to show the full extent of outdoor kitchens including a grill, cabinetry, refrigeration and accessories.
     Although an association with a contractor is not required, casual retailers can provide valuable input with regard to component requirements or coordinating counter heights to accommodate standard bar chairs.
Despite a challenging economy, outdoor manufacturers and retailers have seen growth in the outdoor kitchen segment. "We are in the middle of a record year for our company and expect continued growth for 2011," Faulk said.
As the segment of the market served by the outdoor kitchen products has been less affected by recent economics, it is providing high sales opportunities for the specialty retailer.
"We see continued growth in the category as people become aware of the offering and realize that there are outdoor kitchens that are affordable especially when they consider the value it adds to their lifestyle and home," said Shimek.
"Eating out" may have been the punch line of a joke for Diller, but in the case of outdoor kitchens it is the welcome result of an industry that continues to innovate and grow. Manufacturers and retailers alike may enjoy the last laugh.

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