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Casual furniture manufacturers expand, four add showrooms

Like a propane tank about two minutes away from empty, the presence of grill, grill accessory and hearth manufacturers has been sputtering along at the Casual Market for a few years.

But for those companies that do choose to exhibit at the show next month, furniture retailers who also sell grills say they're never too busy to hunt for new products.

"We always take the opportunity at market to look for new products, new technologies, new innovations," said Lee Recchia, vice president and chief operating officer at Georgia Backyard, with four stores in the metro Atlanta area, and America's Backyard, with one location in Dallas. Although the stores cater to the high-end market, barbecue grills were added to the product mix a few years ago with positive results, Recchia said.

"I do look at grills if there are grills there," said Bill Klaban, owner of Tubbies Spa & Patio in State College, Pa. Tubbies carries an impressive array of grill items, and Klaban always is on the lookout for hot products.

"Four years ago, there were tons of grills but just a few last year," Klaban said. "I walk through every booth, though, to see if anything catches my eye. But I haven't seen much in the past few years that has caught my eye."

In the late '90s, only a handful of grill companies signed up for temporary space at the Merchandise Mart. But, as if by magic, grill and hearth presence at the market blossomed for about a three-year period. One couldn't throw a succulent smoked tri-tip roast on the temporary floors without hitting a grill manufacturer, an apron company, a cookbook seller, a kamado grill maker or a charcoal oven manufacturer. The number of exhibitors in the grill category grew from a handful to a few dozen.

This year, only seven temporary exhibitors in the barbecue grill arena signed up by mid-July.

"[Grill manufacturers] still are very much part of the show," said Karla Carey, director of marketing for the Chicago Casual Market. "Retailers are starting to see the importance of the Outdoor Room, which is not just charcoal."

The Casual Market boasts a growing number of permanent exhibitors who display grills. Weber-Stephen Products became the first grill manufacturer to set up shop on the permanent showroom floors. Weber covers the industry from the Smokey Joe charcoal grill sold at nearly all mass merchants to the pricey Vieluxe gas model. The company's recent purchase of the bankrupt Ducane brand certainly will bolster Weber's presence in the grill market as well as its cachet among the permanent exhibitors at the Mart.

Longtime casual furniture stalwart Laneventure moved its grill presence from a temporary home on the second floor into its permanent showroom space. Trying to capitalize on the Outdoor Room concept, Lane has entered the grill business in a big way, unveiling a beefy lineup of stainless steel products including built-in grills, refrigerators, warming drawers and outdoor fireplaces.

Joining those permanent exhibitors this year is Fire Stone Home Products, a Bloomington, Minn.-based company that burst upon the scene this year at the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association Expo in Anaheim, Calif.

The company currently is unveiling its lineup of gas grills, electric grills, wood- and gas-burning fireplaces and grill islands. Dan Shimek, who founded Heat-N-Glo with brother Ron, is behind Fire Stone.

The Casual Market and HPBA have a symbiotic relationship. "If a store is primarily a patio store and hearth is secondary, they come here," Carey said. "If they are a hearth store and patio is secondary, then they go to HPBA."

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