By Derrick Riches
Updated: October 21, 2019
For over 20 years, people have been telling me that the pellet grill is the new gas grill. Those people are wrong. Completely wrong. Pellet grills, while easy to use, are mechanically complicated, occasionally temperamental and above the maintenance habits of many backyard cooks. Oh, and they seldom reach the kind of intense grilling temperatures that most people expect. There is, however, a pellet grill arms race going on that may change everything.
What pellet grills do offer is decent smoking potential and grilling abilities in one package. They are nearly as convenient as gas but, produce a more authentic real wood fire flavor. It is this promise that has increased sales and driven many consumers away from charcoal to pellet cookers. So, the real contest isn’t between gas vs charcoal, it’s actually charcoal vs pellet. If you look at the sales figures for higher priced grills, particularly of the Kamado variety, pellet units are gaining ground.
Although pellet grills are mechanically complicated, charcoal grills need to be lit and the fire maintained. Pellet grills are conversely simple to operate. Just plug it in, pour wood pellets into the hopper and turn it on. Pellet grills start right up, reach and hold the desired temperature, and then shut themselves down once cooking is complete. Under the hood, however, small wood pellets must be fed from a hopper to a small firepot. A mechanical auger turned by an electric motor moves them along. A hot contact ignitor burns the pellets and a fan accelerates the fire. This allows the little, 3 to 4 inch diameter firepot to heat the cooking chamber.
The earliest models had three settings. The temperature was controlled by the rate at which the pellets were fed into the firepot. This was not the best solution. But very slowly the pellet grill improved. A thermocouple was added to the cooking chamber to monitor temperatures. A controller with 25-degree increments replaced the low-med-high setting knob. To accomplish this required a small onboard computer that managed the rate at which the auger turned and adjusted the speed of the fan. This meant more parts and more wiring.
It doesn’t stop there. For a pellet grill to hold the correct temperature, it has to monitor the cooking chamber and make a series of adjustments to maintain heat. Greater precision required more sophisticated electronics.
If all this monitoring is going on, why not monitor the food temperature too? Add in a meat temperature probe and collect that data as well. All this information is useless unless the user has access to it. Why not connect the whole system to a home network or smart device that offers remote monitoring and control of the whole process? In the past, pellet grill companies demonstrated this networked technology by cooking a brisket on the other side of the country. Of course, someone had to be at the smoker to put that brisket on to cook. But still, it made for an interesting demo.
All of this technology has required development and has inspired even small grill companies to add an R & D department, app developers, and engineers. Once this was in place, they had the ability to surpass the competition and take it to the next level. This has spawned a pellet grill technology race. The question is, where are they racing to? The industry will have you believe that this race leads to a grill so capable, so easy to use, so reliable that consumers will give up their gas grill, and go pellet. What was once a niche market is now being now presented as all things to everyone.
The Spirit of Innovation
Enter, Jeremy Andrus, CEO of Traeger. It is Mr. Andrus who took Traeger from the place of its founding, south of Portland and about $70 million a year in revenue, to the hipster center of Salt Lake City, with earnings over $300 million. He rewrote the culture, modernized shipping and distribution, marketing, service, support, and technological development. Traeger has grown from a small family-owned business to nearly 400 employees and almost twice that many Instagram accounts.
Mr. Andrus is the sort of man that appears in Forbes. In fact, he even writes for them. This Harvard MBA has all the hallmarks of success. Before Traeger, he was the person responsible for putting Skullcandy kiosks in every U.S. mall. He propelled this company from obscurity to earning $300 million a year before Beats by Dre introduced its headphones to the market. Jeremy is that clean-cut modern CEO with profiles in every business journal and the good sense to never let himself be photographed in a suit. Regardless of anyone’s opinion, he has taken Traeger into the mainstream mindset. He has done what many thought impossible, and he taught every backyard cook that they needed a pellet grill. More than any other pellet grill company in the past 20 years, Jeremy Andrus has made this style of cooking equipment viable and popular.
Pellets Go Mainstream
So how did pellet grills end up in Home Depot stores and wood pellets on grocery store shelves? The promise of smoke flavor is a big part of it, but so is the ‘nerd factor.’ When Traeger introduced the Timberline 850 in late 2017, models were sent to tech-oriented and financial magazines and websites ranging from Wired to Forbes to Endgadget. The message was clear. This pellet grill was less about barbecue and more about the technology, gadgetry, and specs. The strategy might have been more effective if Wired Magazine hadn’t given the grill a two and a half star rating citing problems with the app as its primary weakness.
With the introduction of their D2 drive system (an improved app and user interface), Traeger returned to the tech sites in 2019 for reviews. Here, mixed between articles on game consoles and cellphones, sat the hype of Traeger’s new marketing campaign. Wired seems to have been skipped this round, but ZDNet, Techhive, and Gearjunkie jumped on the hype about brushless motors, WiFi (called WiFire by Traeger) connectivity, and the D2 direct drive auger system that promises more torque at lower speeds. Are the improvements real? Yes, they actually are. And, that alone has driven inspiration into other pellet grill manufacturers.
This brings us to Green Mountain Grills and their new Prime Grills. While not a brand you may have heard of, this small company has gone toe to toe with Traeger. As Traeger
unveiled their D2 Grill line, Green Mountain Grills was pushing their newest innovation. Don’t let the fact that their mailing address is PO box in Reno bother you. Green Mountain Grills is serious about taking on the competition. The Prime Grills (depending on the version) have full WiFi connectivity with a proprietary app, a hood mounted window, dual temperature probes, and a bottle opener. These enhanced pellet grills hit the market in June of 2019, a little late in the season, but manufacturer reaction takes time.
Green Mountain Grills has been innovative, but without the budget of Traeger, their ability to keep pace may wane over time. Both Traeger and Green Mountain Grills are made in China and both are pushing the low-end price barrier as much as they can. In fact, there is little difference in price between the two when comparing similar models.
While Green Mountain Grills’ smaller operation puts them at risk of being trampled by the Traeger machine, there is someone else who might pose serious competition. Out of Arizona, we get Dansons, makers of Louisiana Grills, Pit Boss Grills, and Surelock Safes. Dansons has been in the pellet grill business since minutes after Traeger’s patent expired. They have experience and deep pockets and an ace up their sleeve.
And this is nothing to say about the real heavyweight. With Weber entering the Pellet Grill Arms Race in 2020, the whole field is about to change. Their SmokeFire Pellet Grill, can, at least on paper, beat every specification that Traeger’s grills have.
Back to the Beginning and Beyond
In the Fall of 2019, Dansons will be releasing their Founders Series pellet grill under the Louisiana Grills brand name. What makes this grill new and innovative? Right now, very few people have seen much of it. Yes, it has full WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, SmartSmokeIT technology, and double-wall construction. It even boasts direct grilling over a pellet powered flame broiler that promises cooking temperatures up to 1000 degrees F. On paper, the specifications would make this out to be the superior pellet grill/smoker in every detail. We will have to wait and see how it performs.
But this isn’t the driving message of the Founders Series. That lies in Dansons Ace. The marketing message surrounding this grill is all about Heritage. The Founders Series is a collaborative effort between Dansons’ pellet innovator, Dan Thiessen, and Joe Traeger Sr. That’s right, Dansons hired the original inventor of the pellet grill to amp up their credibility score to an eleven. Will it work? That really depends on the grill and its sale price, but having access to the Traeger name may work on several levels. It certainly will cut into the Traeger company’s ability to claim heritage in the market space.
Ultimately the long term survivability of a grill company is in the product itself. Innovation is great, but pointless if it doesn’t work straight out of the box, if there are quality control issues, or if it breaks down in its first year of use. A good grill must be over-engineered. It has to function through a Phoenix summer and a Vermont winter and stay relatively rust free in Miami humidity. Being featured in Forbes for superior supply line engineering or getting write-ups on technology websites for the programmability of your smart device app will only going to get you so far. Cooking performance, construction quality, and customer support are far more important. The winner of the pellet grill arms race may be the company with a better reputation rather than technology. This might seem obvious, but frequently it doesn’t work out that way.
Who Will Win the Pellet Grill Arms Race?
Once upon a time, Traeger invented the pellet grill. It found a niche market in the barbecue world. These early grills worked well. Consumers found their mechanical nature as appealing as the real wood smoke flavor they produced. As time went by, these pellet grills had vastly improved smoking capabilities, thus firmly embedding themselves in the hardcore barbecue community. Then Traeger’s patent expired. They moved manufacturing overseas, and more than a dozen companies jumped into the pellet grill market. Traeger struggled with quality control, modernization, competition, and vision. Then came Jeremy Andrus and the Trilantic Equity Fund (run by Mitt Romney’s son), and Traeger took the pellet grill to brand new markets. Suddenly people who once purchased a Weber Genesis were now buying pellet grills.
It is a mystery how the next year or two will play out. If Dansons can leverage their newly acquired heritage, they might be able to ride Traeger’s product and brand recognition into industry dominance. Then again, someone new could invent a pellet grill so revolutionary that the arms race might become a war without end.