After a long enough period of economic weakness, bad can become the new normal. Last year I said that everyone in the Barbecue Industry was looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. For 2011, that light didn't appear. After the 11% drop in sales for grills and smokers in 2009, the past two years have seen virtually no change, or more accurately, no improvement. According the statistics from the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association sales of grills dropped nearly 2% between 2010 and 2011. That makes a little more than 1% drop from 2009 to 2011, keeping the industry down significantly since the start of the recession. While my own numbers suggest that 2011 might be not have been as bad as suggested, there certainly wasn't the recovery we have all been waiting for.
The big question is, how will 2012 turn out? We all see the news about a potential economic recovery, but how that will play out in the near future is better left to the best guesses of economists. What I can say is that signs point to a growth in optimism by barbecue industry insiders. Attendance at the recent HPBExpo in Atlanta was up in every category (attendance, exhibitors, floor space sold) over last year's show in Salt Lake City. Of course this is partly due to the better location, but with 29 first time exhibitors in the barbecue category, there is cause to suggest that people are optimistic about the near future.
Like the general recession, it was the lower end that got hit hardest. In this case, gas grills under $500 seem to have taken the biggest hit, evident in part from the number of 2011 and even 2010 models held over by mass market merchants for this year. The combination of excess competition with a slow market has put more than a few grills in warehouses.
Higher up on the price list is where we really start seeing the optimism. Big, shiny, and expensive grills are out there, and ready for recovery. New manufacturers are hitting the market, and old ones are looking for better profits in higher prices. Take Saber Grills for instance. Spun off of Char-Broil, these infrared grills can run up to $1,700USD and while not in the premium category, the Saber line will not find their way to chain or mass market stores. Sound like a leap of faith, relying on specialty retailers? Could be. Could also be a good gamble if specialty retailers who have been locked in competition with Char-Broil grills at big box stores are willing to pick it up as a product line. W.C. Bradley, parent company of Char-Broil and Saber has invested two years in the development of Saber, trying to avoid the shortcomings that have plagued Char-Broil. From all appearances, Saber is a quality product and there is a serious dedication to its success.
As for Char-Broil, they have tightened their focus, rebranding all their infrared grills, as well as books and accessories, with the "TRU-Infrared" logo. More significantly, Char-Broil has been expanding outside the United States. With growth in Australia and the acquisition of Danish Dancook, Char-Broil is better positioned in a global market.
Char-Broil will have to do a lot of catching up as Weber has been focused on international markets for years, in some ways more than it has on the domestic market. When private equity firm BDT Capital Partners bought the majority stake from the Stephen Family at the end of 2010 it was said that the reason was to free up capital so Weber could invest in foreign markets. This puts a lot of hope on Weber selling male oriented outdoor cooking equipment in the Middle East and Asia. A hard sell at best. What Weber, obviously under the direction of the new owners, has done for 2011, besides trimming positions at their Palatine, IL headquarters, is renew their focus on the accessory market and the negotiation of larger floor space at Home Depot and Target. I have been told that, with these goals met, Weber will be focusing more on their core products and new products so we might see some new grills in a year or two. What further influence BDT Capital has on Weber will be something we will have to wait for.
On the charcoal front, the big story remains the explosion of Kamado style cookers. Where once Big Green Egg dominated and a couple of other makers picked up the slack, there are now more than a dozen brands and that number is set to rise in the next few years. This is partly due to the self imposed limits of Big Green Egg's distribution, but also by Auplex Appliance Company, a Chinese maker of Kamado grills who will set virtually anyone up with a their own brand of these ceramic grills. If you know your Kamado Grills, you have probably already seen this grill under a few brand names. Add to this mix Char-Griller's entry to the market with a $300USD insulated metal version and the price range for Kamado Grills now spreads from this discount price to $8,000USD for the Kamado Joe Revolution Series ProJoe. The Char-Griller unit is available at a number of chain retail outlets.
At the recent HPBExpo I got the opportunity to visit Primo Grill's new factory outside Atlanta, GA. This facility will soon be capable of producing enough Primo Grills to meet all of the demand for all Kamado style cookers in North America. Being the only domestic manufacturer (Big Green Egg's are made in Mexico, Grill Dome in India, most others in China) has been a benefit for Primo and this factory will let them meet virtually any demand for their product for the next decade or more. So, with a growing number of brands, an enlarging production capacity, wider price ranges, and mass market entry, the real question is, exactly how big is the potential Kamado market and how long can some of the smaller players survive on limited sales in an increasingly competitive environment.
Over on the Pellet Grill front, more and more companies are trying to cash in on the expiration of the Traeger patents. It seems that anyone who can wire an auger has jumped into the market. The problem is that there are some other patents out there and some big players looking to try and take a large piece of what really is a small pie. I hate to tell the pellet heads this, but pellet grills will not replace gas grills anytime soon. Moving parts and complicated control mechanisms will keep prices much higher than the nearly $300USD average gas grill price. On the other hand, the benefits of real wood fire with a highly controllable cooking interface will certainly make more believers over the next few years. The pellet grill category will certainly grow, but coming from around 2% of the overall industry, there is a lot of room for growth and a long way to go.
So what happens next? Imagine a relatively low cost, competent pellet grill from a good sized company with excellent retail connections, and a little genius behind the design. Coming in the next few months from England Stove Works and Ed "Fast Eddy" Maurin is a pellet grill that features a direct grilling space (one of Ed Maurin's patents) with over 600 degree F. grate temperature and good sized smoking chamber for low and slow cooking. This as of yet unnammed pellet grill could come in at around $1,000USD, which will have a number of pellet manufacturers scratching their heads.
There is a lot going on in the barbecue industry for 2012 and we should see some changes in strategy. With the mid to upper range gas grills appearing to be the best bet for growth, and a larger focus on higher end charcoal grills due to their better profit margins, we should be seeing continued evolution of product and market strategies.