The Pellet Grill Expectation Gap

My neighbor doesn’t clean his pellet grill. It’s a little Traeger that he has owned for several years. About 40 times a year, he fires it up. On Thanksgiving, he cooks a turkey. Other times, he cooks chicken. I’ve never seen him cook ribs. Certainly never a brisket or pork butt. For him, it’s a backyard cooking oven. He doesn’t even try grilling burgers or steaks, just chicken and the occasional turkey. Still, he never cleans it. 

Perhaps it’s the fact that he leaves it out in the rain with the lid up that keeps it clean. He has a dog, so he never leaves the grease bucket hanging under the grill. That gets cleaned out after every cook. Nothing else does. I will say, this is not the recommended care for a pellet grill. Why it still works is a mystery to me. 

In the time he has had this one pellet grill, more than 20 models have crossed my patio. I’ve had auger jams, grease fires, flameouts, and every other problem reported by pellet grill users. Of course, I test grills. I punish them. If I can break them, I will. That’s my job, but I also clean them because it’s part of basic care. 

Over the years, I have found that many people have unrealistic expectations of their pellet grills. Though recently, I have found that many manufacturers have unrealistic expectations of their customers. As the pellet grill market continues to heat up, this gap is becoming more and more of a problem.

To close this gap, we need to help consumers understand what a pellet grill is, how it works, and the problems that might arise. We also need to teach manufacturers what happens on the real patios of their consumers. It isn’t always pretty, but it is the truth. 

For the Consumer:

  1. Pellet grills are good grills and good smokers. They are not great grills or great smokers. Want real, hardcore authentic barbecue? Get a smoker that burns whole logs or at least lump charcoal. Want a great grill, again, charcoal is excellent or, invest in a good quality gas grill. Kamado grills do both smoking and grilling, and with a little practice, they actually perform these tasks better.
  2. Pellet grills are mechanically complicated. They have moving parts, motors, fans, and increasingly advanced electronics. The days of setting up and cooking are over. Now you need to connect your cooker to your network, update its firmware and go through all the necessary cleaning and maintenance. Still, some of this maintenance can require mechanical skills.
  3. Wood pellets are the most expensive fuel you can buy for your backyard cooker. If you are cooking for long periods or at high temperatures, you will burn through a lot of them. Also, not all pellets are made equally. Some are crap, and always buying the cheapest types can cause increased auger jams, higher ash production, and bad tasting smoke. 
  4. You can’t always set it and forget it. Pellet grills need close monitoring. There may be problems that can delay your cookout that can occur at any time, so be mindful of this. Don’t place all of your trust in the app or the grill. 
  5. You are going to eat ash. There is no other way around it. Pellet grills blow ash into the cooking chamber, and some of that is going to end up on your food. For now, you are going to have to accept that.

The truth is, pellet grills are not for everyone. Lately, with companies like Broil-King and Weber jumping into the pellet grill game, consumers who have only owned gas grills are being lured into the pellet world. Gas grills can take a lot of punishment, and to be honest, you can get away with never cleaning them. Gross, but certainly possible. If you just want a grill for your burgers and steaks, don’t buy a pellet grill. 

For the Manufacturers:

  1. Telling your consumers that they have to buy your brand of pellets is wrong. Most of you don’t make your own pellets anyway. You outsource your pellet brand and pick the supplier that delivers the quality you can get away with for the price point you need. Test your pellet grills with the most available and popular brands of pellets and calibrate for that. Specifying your brand of pellets does a disservice to the consumer, particularly when they require mail order.
  2. Be honest about the maintenance and operation of your pellet grills. All this, “set it and forget it” marketing is raising a bar of expectation that many of your grills simply can’t reach. These claims leave your customers feeling dissatisfied, and that sends them online to complain about your products. In turn, your army of influencers set out to shout them down. Blaming your customers isn’t the best way to run a business. 
  3. Make sure the software works before you ship. Updates are both a reality and crucial to the success of your product. Recently, too many high-tech grills released on the market have substantial software issues. There is nothing more frustrating than assembling your grill only to have to spend hours talking to customer service to get it to work. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but most people expect to cook on their grill the day they buy it. 
  4. People don’t clean their grills as frequently as they should. Believe me. I have cooked on hundreds of other people’s grills. They are disgusting and occasionally cleaned, at best. With pellet grills, you can’t just heat them up and expect that the grill will clean itself. You can fill your user manuals with cleaning and maintenance cycles, but suggesting that a grill needs to be cleaned after 10, 15, or 20 hours of use is not realistic. And, if your consumers neglect to do this doesn’t let you off the hook. Some of you have massive R&D teams. Have them focus on the basics before they worry about Alexa integration or radar-based pellet sensors. Pellet grills aren’t self-cleaning, but they can be easier to clean. Requiring a trip to the toolbox to clean a grill is not acceptable. 
  5. Figure out a way to deal with the ash issue before the American Institute for Cancer Research forces you to.

It’s no secret that pellet grills have gone mainstream; however, the new market is comprised of people who are novice backyard cooks. Early pellet grills went to a small group of people who saw the potential in exploring this strange little grill. They quickly developed a fan base that drove them to be better, more reliable, and more versatile. Pellet grill enthusiasts have had just as much of an impact on a product as the manufacturer. Companies that make pellet grills need to remember this. 

I’m not trying to bash pellet grills. I know that for many people they are a great choice. They may not be perfect, but for a large number of outdoor cooking gurus, they are the grill they want and sometimes even need. However, I do want newcomers to gain a deeper understanding of what pellet grill ownership means. Pellet grills can require extra care. I also wish that manufacturers would stop making promises they can’t keep. 

Case Studies

Let me illustrate my point with a few examples. It’s hard to be a big grill company these days without having a line of pellet grills, hence everyone jumping into the market space. In the summer of 2019, Broil King introduced their pellet grill. We can honestly say it was rushed to market, and the first people to buy their pellet grills had problems with the software and the smart-device apps. 

This, of course, led to several bad reviews as Broil King pumped out software and firmware update after update. Unfortunately, doing so didn’t remove the early reviews from the internet. Broil King will have to live with these poor marks for years to come. 

Broil King is a Canadian company. They make all their products in North America and design them to perform well in the middle of a Canadian winter. The Broil King pellet grills will hit 600 degrees F regardless of the outside air temperature. Arguably, a necessary and great feature.

Broil King also loves engineering and spends a lot of time on it. In the course of developing their pellet grills, they realized a common problem with wood pellets. They have too large of a diameter to fit through the small augers. Wood pellets were not developed for cooking; they were designed for heating water heaters, furnaces, and even power plants. In these applications, a larger diameter is fine. 

Broil King Regal 500 Pellet Grill
Broil King Regal 500 Pellet Grill

So what did Broil King do? They ordered their own brand of wood pellets and had them made at a smaller diameter than the industry norm. Then they optimized the design of their grills to fit these smaller pellets. While they claim you can use any brand of pellets, you are going to have more frequent auger jams unless you use their brand. Again, here is a grill company telling you what fuel to use. This wouldn’t be an issue if Broil King’s brand wood pellets were available everywhere. They are not, so consumers need to order online instead of popping down to a local store to buy more. 

This brings us to the most anticipated pellet grill in history, the Weber SmokeFire. Weber is the industry leader, and they know it. They don’t imitate, they innovate. They are also a brand more than just a product. Design and uniqueness are major factors for them. When Weber set out to build a pellet grill, they started by reinventing the wheel, which would be fine if it was purely from an engineering perspective. 

Where did they get into trouble? When they decided that design and unique features took precedence over function. SmokeFire had to look like a Weber product. They pushed the hopper to the rear of the unit and ended up with a grill that can go cold because the pellets don’t fall into the auger correctly. They wanted their patented “flavorizer bars,”’ to be the primary deflector of heat and grease, mainly because they have the parts on hand. Weber reuses parts as often as possible to hold down costs.

With the direct flame capability and high-temperature grilling, Weber has made a grill with grease fire problems. Drippings from food are supposed to channel away and collect in a tray under the grill. Ash is supposed to simply drop out the bottom of the firepot. This isn’t what happens. Grease and ash combine to block the drains allowing the bottom of the grill to fill with highly flammable greasy/ashy sludge. 

How did this happen? Why does SmokeFire have so many obvious design flaws? Mostly because form came before function. This is a prime example of a product rushed to market, which is odd since it was in development for at least two years. You can tell how rushed it was since Weber began talking about future features before the first models reached the customer’s doorstep. 

Weber EX4 SmokeFire Pellet Grill
Weber EX4 SmokeFire Pellet Grill

These problems are going to haunt Weber for a long time. Negative reviews, YouTube videos, and social media discussions are piling up. Even Weber’s biggest fans are having trouble defending this grill. In the meantime, Weber’s support lines remain flooded with complaints. Their response: ‘working on it.’

Weber, of course, has the best customer service in the industry and I know that they are doing everything possible to get the situation under control. There are always unforeseen problems with any rollout, however, many of these issues should have been dealt with before the grill was ready to ship. SmokeFire is a good pellet grill and it has a lot of potential. The bugs will get fixed, hopefully, sooner than later.

Ultimately, I want people, consumers, and manufacturers, to understand that pellet grills can’t be all things to everyone. Consumers are being spoon-fed, false expectations of capability and ease of use. Manufacturers seem to think that merely getting to market with a pellet grill, whether it is ready or not, is enough to capitalize on the surge of pellet popularity. 

The biggest threat to the pellet grill market is found in this gap of expectation. Disappointed consumers might just turn elsewhere for their outdoor cooking needs. And companies that have rushed to market and banked their future on pellet power are flooding an already glutted market space. Not all of these companies are going to survive. The problem with a slew of failing pellet grill companies might just be that the better grills simply disappear, and the loudest companies remain in control.

8 thoughts on “The Pellet Grill Expectation Gap

  • February 25, 2020 at 2:49 am
    Permalink

    How did you come up with ash as a carcinogen? Have you ever written about the carcinogens in propane? I would like to see the science behind it.

    Reply
    • February 25, 2020 at 5:06 pm
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      Stuart,

      Neither propane nor natural gas produce carcinogens when combusted. Propane, when properly mixed with oxygen produces only carbon dioxide and water vapor. There is a risk that carbon monoxide may be produced in this combustion which is why all gas grills carry a warning that they not be used in an enclosed space. Natural gas does not have this potential, which is why we can burn it in our kitchens.

      This, of course, is not addressing the cancer risk associated with high-temperature cooking which is well documented and not necessarily specific to outdoor cooking.

      Biomass combustion, on the other hand, produces smoke and ash. Smoke of any variety is known to increase cancer risks. This is why firefighters have a 14% greater chance of dying from cancer versus the general population.

      My point, however, is the issue of deposited ash on foods from pellet grills specifically. Because of the accelerated airflow required to make a pellet grill work, ash is carried into the cooking chamber of the grill. This ash deposits on food. All ash, regardless of the material burned, contains a variety of cancer-causing substances. Ingestion of these substances poses a potential risk to the consumer.

      I know (because I have been asked) that research on this issue is being done. Should a report be issued suggesting an increased risk of cancer from pellet grills it could be devastating to the industry. Certainly, I have no interest in misinforming the public. What I would like to see is an effort by pellet grill manufacturers to mitigate this risk before it becomes an issue.

      In my past professional life, I worked with risk assessment. It is where a large portion of my education lies. I tend to look at everything from the standpoint of what can go wrong. Should a major cancer research organization put forth information suggesting that pellet grills pose a higher cancer risk than other types of outdoor cooking equipment, it could turn consumers away from these products. I feel that this is an issue that needs to be addressed before that happens.

      Reply

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