Grilling schools boost stores’ bottom line, customer loyalty

Donna Myers, March 1, 2008

Barbecuing, as a hobby, has become all-consuming to many outdoor chefs, so it is no wonder they actively seek out classes where they can hone their skills. One of the first places they turn to perfect their grilling and smoking techniques is the retailer from whom they bought their grill.

Thus retailers will find, if they haven’t already done so, there is significant demand for this service and they ought to hop on the bandwagon.

A cooking class, conducted by chefs at Weber Grill Restaurant in Schaumburg, Ill., stays packed.

A cooking class, conducted by chefs at Weber Grill Restaurant in Schaumburg, Ill., stays packed.

Backyard Outfitters has fun setting up vignettes and tents like classrooms outside its two California locations.

Backyard Outfitters has fun setting up vignettes and tents like classrooms outside its two California locations.

Backyard Outfitters has fun setting up vignettes and tents like classrooms outside its two California locations.

Conducting these classes, whether on a random or regular basis, is bound to increase sales. So how often should you plan to hold classes, who should teach them, where should they be held and how is a class different from the demos we discussed last month?

A class is generally of a longer duration than a demo and it is a sit-down-and-be-serious-about-this affair. The objective is to impart some reasonably in-depth information on a given topic. For instance, a retailer might decide he or she is going to teach a “novice barbecuers” class every three months to help ensure the people buying grills are learning how to use them properly, that they are happy with their purchase and will recommend the retailer to their friends.

Another single class topic might be “using barbecuing accessories” which could be taught in early December. The idea would be to use lots of accessories during the class, and then suggest they make great gifts for the upcoming holidays.

The consensus seems to be there should be a charge for attending most any cooking class. The charge helps offset the cost of the food, which usually amounts to a meal for participants. But it also helps ensure those who register show up for the class, which has required considerable preparation time and effort.

How often to offer classes

There is no real rule of thumb regarding frequency. It may depend on your particular customers and what will appeal to them. For instance, Thanksgiving gives you an opportunity to show people how to cook their holiday bird outdoors to free up the oven for the rest of the food preparation. During a one-, two- or three-hour class, you could demonstrate smoking the turkey, frying the turkey and rotissing the turkey as alternatives to simply roasting it in the oven.

Or, you may want to plan a series that would take place on a given night or on a Saturday every week for six weeks. You could feature weekly sessions built around grilling, smoking, marinating and seasoning, produce, fish and seafood and desserts. Customers could sign up for the individual topics or for the entire series and the cost could be reduced per session for those who committed to participating in all of them.

You’ll want to control the size of the class according to your facilities so that everyone is able to see, hear and ultimately feel involved in the experience.

Where to conduct classes

Retailers, or even manufacturers, have come up with some very interesting answers to this.

Grillmaster’s Garden in suburban Indianapolis is so committed to the benefits of teaching cooking classes that they built a separate building at their retail store location to house their Grillmaster’s University. This culinary center offers classes on all aspects of grilling, smoking and barbecuing.

Weber Stephen has a unique venue in its Weber Grill Restaurants where the head chef becomes the instructor for teaching participants The Weber Way of Grilling. The open kitchens in the restaurants lend themselves to easy viewing, the classes are always packed and the “students” get to enjoy the food used to demonstrate cooking techniques.

Backyard Outfitters, with two locations in California, has had great success setting up tents outside its stores with classroom seating. The retailer brought in cookbook author and competition cooker, Dr. BBQ, to teach with more than 60 people attending each class.

And Bassemiers’ Fireplace and Patio in Evansville, Ind., uses several different methods for conducting its cooking classes. They have a local accomplished barbecuer who volunteers to teach a classes at their facility, but owner John Bassemier, aka Dr. Grill, also conducts an outdoor class once a month which is broadcast on their local Fox channel.

Many retailers have built-in demonstration kitchens within their stores where they can regularly conduct cooking classes. This can be a worthwhile investment if you are truly committed to holding the classes as an ongoing part of your business.

How to promote the classes

If you are going to conduct classes on a regular and reasonably frequent basis, word of mouth will soon help drive participants to them.

Some retailers mail notices to their existing customers, informing them of dates and topics for the classes. Counter cards or posters in the store will attract a number of “students” and should be in place many weeks before the classes are to take place. The community calendar in your local newspaper may list the upcoming classes. Inviting the local newspaper food or lifestyle editor to attend as your guest may help provide both before and after publicity. And if you are doing local advertising via radio, television or newspaper, be sure to include information about the classes.

It’s a good idea to provide each person attending a class with some small gift. It might be a bottle of spices, a rub, a small but clever utensil or any number of things. And let participants shop after the class, since many will want to pick up some of the items that were used during the class.

As you start into the peak season for barbecuing, it’s time to check your schedule to see how many classes you have planned. If it is looking a little thin, you’ll want to move it to your priority list and figure out just what topics would be of interest to your customers.

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