Fighting to gain room for the next new grill
Stephanie Richardson -- Casual Living, 6/3/2011 4:41:29 AM
For the past two years, pellet grills have won awards at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo. If you were in attendance, you likely noted the increase in the number of pellet-related products on the floor. Of course the expiration of Traeger's patent has certainly opened up the possibilities in this segment. But why does it seem as though this method of outdoor cooking is having trouble catching on?
Retailers and consumers both seem to be reluctant to embrace pellet grills - even those that have embraced pellets for heating can't seem to make the leap to grilling. Some even argue in a derogatory tone that pellet grills are more like cooking in an oven rather than grilling. So given the relative newness of this method of outdoor cooking, and the animosity it creates in some circles, where is the category going?
According to a number of pellet product manufacturers, although the going is slow, the number of new players in the industry certainly indicates that it's going somewhere.
Hearthland Products won two awards for its Memphis Pro Wood Fire Grills at HPBExpo in 2010. Carolyn Mattila, marketing director at Hearthland Products, said those awards may have helped things along with dealers, but it's still an uphill battle.
"They're more receptive, but it's not their main focus," she said. "Consumers want to pigeonhole pellet grills as unattractive and cumbersome - and they think they have to mess with pellets every time." MAK Grills won an award for a pellet grill at the HPB Expo in March. Did it translate into sales?
"It helped create awareness of our product and worked to validate the principle of pellet grilling," said Bruce Bjorkman, director of sales and marketing at MAK. "But there's a bit of what someone called ‘trade show fever,' where dealers are enthusiastic at the show but the excitement falls off a bit after they get home."
Todd Strem, sales and marketing manager at WoodMaster, said retailers are reluctant for a number of reasons - all of them valid. Because pellet grills are a newer product, they require a bit of an education on the part of both retailer and consumer, he said.
Also, there is the economic issue of many retailers having stock left from last year, as well as the higher price point of pellet grills. In addition, e-commerce is interested, and many retailers don't want to compete with the Internet. "We prefer stores for our products because we want consumers to be able to see the products and ‘kick the tires,'" he said.
Bjorkman sees retailer reluctance because, very simply, there's little demand. In fact, depending on who you ask, the category accounts for somewhere around 1% of all U.S. grill sales each year.
So what's an already overworked, stressed-out retailer to do about this segment of the business? Ignore it, stick with proven products and see what happens? Or find a few minutes to see if this is a product category that may add to the bottom line?
Not surprisingly, those who make pellet grills and accessories - including pellets - would vote for the latter. And they make some pretty good points.
Aesthetically speaking, the grills aren't necessarily the big, black, heavy box on the back porch anymore. The new Grilla grill has a small, round footprint which would work well for those with smaller patios or outdoor cooking areas. WoodMaster's pellet grill has digital controls and an interesting "U" shape that can be customized with a design. If you walked up to a stainless steel Memphis Pro grill, you'd almost swear it was a gas grill - and its attributes include dual walls in the cooking chamber and an oven gasket seal around the inside of the lid.
"We've improved the design and the technology and included digital one-touch control," Matilla said. "In short, we made them attractive and easy-to-use."
After the differences in looks, most grill manufacturers are singing from the same songbook when it comes to the benefits of pellet grills.
Across the board, the message to retailers - and on to consumers - is that pellet grills off er the best of all worlds. Wood pellets provide flavor, the convection action means even, consistent heat, and the technology now makes pellet cooking even more convenient.
"People are starting to go back to charcoal because they missed the flavor, and these grills can give you wood flavor," Strem said. "We've taken the flavor of cooking with charcoal and improved it."
Matilla agrees. "Now there is both convenience and flavor," she said. "Consumers don't have to choose between the convenience of gas and the flavor of wood. In fact, it's easier than propane because you don't have to lug a tank to or from the store anymore. And it's safer than dealing with propane tanks."
Another message was consistency in heating - the convection action allows the pellet grill to function almost as an oven. That is exactly what some barbecue enthusiasts dislike most about this kind of grill. Admittedly, some will never embrace pellet grills because of the cooking action, but those who live where freezing temperatures are the norm for many months of the year seem to like pellet grills just fine. (Is it just happenstance that most pellet grill and accessory companies are located in the North and Northwest?)
There are more reasons that pellets may be on the upswing. Pellet accessory companies are popping up seemingly overnight. New on the market is PelletCan, a five-compartment storage unit for pellets. It both stores and dispenses pellets, and can be wheeled up next to a grill for easy loading.
The impetus for the design was personal. According to Brian Cayson, operations manager at PelletCan, the owner of the business owns a Traeger and got tired of having to store and move around multiple bags of pellets to get at a particular flavor. Necessity being the mother of invention, PelletCan was created.
Pellets makers also are popping up. At Eureka Pellet Mills in Montana, Bruce Hart said the company is new to barbecue pellets and decided to go in that direction because it "seems like others are having some success."
Mark Stapleton said Pacific Pellet in Oregon is also new to barbecue pellets. They offer six flavors because it turns out "we have most wood species here and we have easy access." The company decided to get into the pellet game after lots of discussions at HPB Expo. "Someone even mentioned that this was a curve you wanted to be on."
Web sites such as pelletheads. com and a virtual endless number of YouTube videos, blogs, etc. may indicate the pellet way of barbecuing is getting some attention. Even competition barbecue teams are turning to pellets.
While the economic situation may not be conducive to some of these higher-priced pellet products just yet, there does seem to be a slow word-of- mouth campaign going on.
Retailers may want to consider adding some of these pellet products to their lineup (especially if no one else in the area is carrying them), get some demos going, and position themselves as offering the next new thing in barbecue.
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