By Derrick Riches
Updated: July 1, 2019
Turn Barbecue and Grilling into a Year-Round Industry
Not everything needs to have a season. Some things persist all year long. Why not BBQ season? After all, many people use their grills and smokers throughout the winter months. Yet, this receives little to no media coverage.
It’s mid-July, and I’m standing on a rooftop in midtown Manhattan. Ninety degrees out with ninety percent humidity and not a cloud in the sky. I position a borrowed Weber Genesis Gas Grill so that I can stand in the shade of one of the building’s cooling towers. It does nothing for the heat, but at least my skin stays intact.
Skip to the following year. There is a PR event going on. Two dozen experts are working a crowd of magazine editors shuffling through looking for free food and cocktails. I’m the only one on the roof. I work the grill, cobbling together little kebabs out of whatever the organizers managed to grab at a nearby corner market. The few people who do make their way to the roof ask questions out of politeness.
The problem is, its July. One of the biggest outdoor cooking months of the year, but my audience is from magazines with a five to six month lead time. They are looking for holiday content, and I’m not baking Christmas cookies. I’m grilling up chicken skewers and rum soaked pineapple kebabs. They compliment the food, but no matter what I have to say, they are not listening. They live by the editorial calendar, and that tells them they don’t need to worry about barbecue and grilling content for at least five more months.
I tell them that a third of Americans are considering taking the Thanksgiving Turkey out to the patio to grill, fry, or smoke. That 14% of grill owners cook outdoor on that holiday and that 10% do the same for Christmas. I do the math for them. If there are more than 85 million households that own outdoor cooking equipment, and 10% of them fire it up for the December holidays, that is 8.5 million cookouts. If 10% of them bought a magazine, that would make for some pretty good circulation. They smile dimly, take a kebab, and wander back towards the air conditioning. And people wonder why the magazine industry is dying.
More than Two Months of Sales
Conventional wisdom, and to be honest, actual results say that most people purchase outdoor cooking equipment in May and June. It’s a narrow season, but is that a problem? Long ago many gas grills (which are still the cornerstone of the industry) were made by companies that also manufactured fireplace inserts. Many of these companies are still around. Napoleon, Broilmaster, Solaire, and several other brands have their feet in both markets. When they are not selling grills, they are selling fireplace inserts. Doing this generates enough revenue to get them through the year. This method also worked well for small retailers.
This system is reflected in the leading industry trade group, HPBA. The Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, as you can see in the name, functions as a broad umbrella. At their annual Expo, you can walk down the aisles past grill accessories, fireplace duct systems, pool furniture, gas grills, and hearth items. It tends to be a confusing trade show. It also happens too late in the year to take advantage of the “BBQ Season”.
New World Grilling
But times have changed. While fireplace/BBQ stores still exist, there are now more BBQ specialty stores than hybrid retailers. Home Depot and Lowes combined, account for more than half of all grill sales in the United States. And the backyard barbecue industry has widened in ways that could not be predicted ten years ago.
Sixty-Two Percent of Grill Owers Cook Year Round
Yet, magazines, newspapers, and mass media websites continue to pull out the same tired BBQ season articles every year. They take their old recipes, throw in a different ingredient, and call it new. But the most eye-twitching is the perennial favorite, gas vs. charcoal. It’s as if there was no consideration for pellet or electric cookers, not to mention all the variety of smokers. They think in grills; more specifically the cheap, small, and virtually disposable ones.
With most of those bargain grills coming out of big box stores that are unwilling to carry anything higher end than a Weber, there needs to be a different narrative. Despite the thinking of New York-based media outlets, half of Americans live in an area without a harsh winter. For these people, outdoor cooking can be and often is a year-round pastime. Add to this the wide variety of outdoor cooking. It rivals indoor cooking, if not exceeding it in many ways.
From the hardcore barbecue aficionados to those who build fully functional outdoor kitchens, this style of cooking is a bit more nuanced than what appears in a Walmart showroom. We who work in this industry are already aware. The question is, how do we get the media to recognize that many of us will not be packing away our grills and smokers after Labor Day?
Strategies to Expand the Market
First of all, we need to acknowledge the division between the occasional griller and those that make outdoor cooking an integral part of their lives. It is
far narrower a division than fireplaces and gas grills. It is akin to the gulf between those who reheat frozen foods in the microwave, and those who love to cook and explore it actively. Big box stores will do all the marketing needed for the bottom end of the business. It is up to everyone else to promote a broader range of cooking styles, equipment, and the benefits of investing in backyard cooking.
Secondly, the breadth of outdoor cooking must be demonstrated in broad terms. From the BBQ competitor to the gourmet chef with an outdoor kitchen, there is so much to explore. Certainly, grill makers push the idea of the whole meal from the grill. With the recent improvements in grills and smokers, the introduction of new technologies can make a midrange piece of equipment a kitchen unto itself. The framework exists. It’s time to push innovation in cooking as far as it will go.
Third, the industry needs to drive more attention to “off-season” cooking. The press will come knocking in mid-May. I’m not saying that they should be turned away, but they need to be invited back the weekend before Thanksgiving. I would also invite them right before Christmas and near Super Bowl weekend. The word needs to spread until we no longer talk about BBQ Season. Only then can we look to a time when sales are strong all year long.
Am I saying anything new? No. Of course not. Companies have worked to produce a longer outdoor cooking season. But the days of swapping grills for fireplaces are over. Now Barbecue and Grilling specialty stores rule the market for those serious about outdoor cooking. These retail outlets have nothing to fall back on. They have to focus on the two biggest cooking holidays of the year.
The narrative of the Barbecue and Grilling industry should be driven by those invested in its growth and success, not by editorial calendars maintained by New York publishers. For too long the media has relegated outdoor cooking to a contrived BBQ season between Memorial Day and July 4th. Plain and simple. Barbecue and grilling is a style of cooking, not a seasonal whim.