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Grilling Grows Up

Backyard barbecue becomes big business

Stephanie RichardsonStephanie Richardson
So the other day while I was waiting for my charcoal fire to reach the perfect cooking temperature, I was indoors, flipping through the onscreen TV guide, and the BBQ Pitmasters show caught my eye. I didn't have the opportunity to watch it, but at the time, I remember having a fleeting thought about how far the barbecue business has come over the past few decades.
     I guess I actually have a true idea of just how far that's been. My former boss used to share stories about the days she worked for an Ohio gas company - a time during which gas grills were introduced. I was working for her in the late '80s when, on behalf of the Barbecue Industry Association, she was actively involved in the effort to have Congress change daylight saving time to early April from late April, which added another $100 million or so to our bottom lines.
     Then the era of excess arrived, and just as the gasps had quieted from the introduction of $5,000-plus grills, Benson Barbecues showed up at HPBExpo with a $10,000 grill. Not long afterward, we were all oohing and aahing over the gold-plated grill that showed up (fingerprints and all!) at EXPO. Those were the days.
     Since then, we've been on quite a rollercoaster ride.
     In store, barbecue cookbooks began appearing on shelves at a pace that was astounding. Some have been written by those who clearly have talent with tongs. More increasingly however, I think some are being written by writers whose closest encounter with a barbecue grill is something they see in pretty pictures.
     Also during the past few years, we have seen a crazy number of grill manufacturers come and go. Some are just gone. Some have been purchased by bigger grill companies. And those that are still around are focused on growing their business both here in the U.S. and internationally. And some are being quite successful.BBo Pitmasters
     And have you walked the floor at any retail location where grills are sold? Which, by the way, now includes pretty much everywhere. In one respect, it's great that customers now have more choices than ever before when it comes to fuel preference (and even multi-fuel), size, etc. In another, grill-buying has become mindboggling. It's no wonder that barbecue grill buyers are so desperate to make a good decision that they will frequently turn to other customers on the floor to get advice.
     Then of course, the TEC patent expired. And if Char Broil has anything to do about it, infrared cooking will be the next big thing. A whole new way of outdoor cooking is being introduced to many, many barbecuers.
     And speaking of "newer" ways to cook al fresco, wasn't it just a few short years ago that Big Green Egg was synonymous with kamado AND ceramic cooker? Now, there are many more players, and heck, the cookers aren't necessarily ceramic anymore! Kamado Joe's stainless steel model certainly has helped set a new course in this increasingly popular way to cook.
     Of course, sometimes forces completely beyond our control have a great influence over our industry and its direction. In the last few years, we have seen devastating weather patterns wreak havoc with sales. Hurricanes, floods and drought have caused extreme changes in purchasing. Last summer, the drought was so bad in my county that grilling with an open flame was banned. Those retailers touting electric grilling (and smoking!) were smart.
     I'm not sure where the next few years will take us. I do know that we're all ready for sales to go in the upward direction. But look how far we've come, and how much we've accomplished - barbecue in all its forms is almost ubiquitous. After all, we even have a reality TV show.

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