Cookin’ up sales

May 1, 2001 By    

Much to the delight of barbecue grill manufacturers and the retailers who sell them, sales have reached record heights the last two years, exceeding expectations of everyone in the business.

Few have reaped the benefits more than Minnesota businessman Phil Muller and his wife, Sue Ann.
Last year, the owners of The Outdoor Cooking Store in the suburban community of White Bear Lake located 10 miles north of St. Paul, sold $1.3 million worth of charcoal-electric-gas-wood units, OEM replacements parts, propane, gas logs, and related grill equipment. This year, despite a downturn in the greater Twin Cities economy, the Mullers still expect revenues to reflect modest growth.

Sales will increase, it seems, for one basic reason.

When economic conditions deteriorate, consumers curtail their habit of dining out several times a week. Instead, they opt to spend more time at home, entertaining themselves and others with backyard cookouts to accomodate a shrinking family budget.

“Since 1996, when we chalked up $600,000 in sales, we’ve enjoyed a growth rate of 20 percent annually,” said Muller, a former Honeywell engineer whose small family business sold more than 1,000 grills last year.
“Our success can be attributed in large part to the fact that we have anything that a consumer may be looking for in the way of their outdoor (and indoor) cooking needs. When it comes to outdoor cooking, we are the answer man, the consumer’s source of information. We probably average half a dozen phone calls a day during the year from backyard chefs. In fact, we train a lot of people, including salespeople for WalMart and Home Depot,” Muller says.

Price-wise, the company has opted to stay in the middle- to high-end ranges. Displayed on its showroom floor are full size grills that range from $219 for a Weber unit to $3,500 for a stainless steel Dynasty barbecue, a built-in model that a homeowner will occasionally specify for a new residence.

“We try to stay away from the grills one can find at places like K-Mart, Target, Ward’s and the like,” he disclosed. “More and more people are buying high-end stainless steel grills – for good reason. Some come with a lifetime warranty on the burners, grate and other chief components.

“High-end grills are designed by people who know how to cook. There’s a lot of difference in how a $124 and an $800 grill cooks. If you pay $1,000 for a grill, you won’t have to buy a new part for it a year later.”
Much of the store’s success can be attributed to the wide variety of services offered to customers and the emphasis it places on marketing and promotion.

Each spring, after most of the area’s snow has melted, the company stages its biggest yearly promotion. The Great Minnesota Barbecue Opener is a two-day event held in the store’s parking lot. For the past three years, it has attracted 3,000 to 5,000 people.

“To encourage attendance, we have a cooking contest. We invite 15 area chefs to participate, giving them the option to cook whatever they desire on either a gas, charcoal, or electric grill. Throngs of prospective buyers show up. Last year, in addition to eating what the chefs fixed, they consumed more than 2,700 brats and hotdogs.

“From that point on, we stay pretty busy but still do a number of promotions. We cook for charitable organizations, do guest appearances on local TV weather and home shows, and have a display booth at both the Minnesota State Fair and Northwest Sports Show. Last year, the Home and Garden show on cable TV did a telecast from the patio of a Lake Minnetonka home where we had installed a built-in grill. During the airing, they mentioned our company several times, crediting us for the work. It was great exposure. Afterwards, we received calls from all over the country.”

The Outdoor Cooking Store sells eight lines of gas grills, seven charcoal and three electric. Its charcoal units includes the Lyfetyme, which is manufactured in Uvalde, Texas, and is the first grill Muller ever purchased and sold. His top sellers are Broilmaster and Ducane gas grills.

Its primary market consists of the seven-county metropolitan area. But over the years, it has developed a mailing list of 50,000 prospective customers, a number of whom reside in Canada and Mexico.
Each year, thousands on the list are sent the firm’s 72-page catalog, an award-winning publication selected this year as the best acccessories-grill catalog in the industry by the National Barbecue Association.
“Mailings go to about every state in the country. We have even shipped grills to Hong Kong and Tokyo,” Muller says.

Grills sold to customers in the metro area are assembled and delivered, complete with a full 20-pound cylinder of propane. Heavy sales begin in late March and run through the Labor Day weekend. Peak months are May and June, although they also sell a number in the winter.

“Here in the Twin Cities, a sizeable number of people grill year-round, even in the dead of winter. Ice fishing is also a popular winter pastime in this locale. People grill both inside and outside their fish houses and have propane heaters in them. So, we fill a lot of 20-pounders for ice fishermen once the lakes freeze in November,” he explains.

Muller charges $12 to refill a cylinder. Demand is steady from April through September. Each week, the company fills between 40 and 60 bottles a day from its 500-gallon storage, selling nearly 30,000 gallons a year.

“At this point, a majority of our refills are repeat business, thanks to our five-for-six refill promotion. After paying for five refills, a customer gets a sixth refill for free.”

Other services Muller offers are spring and summer house calls to refurbish and clean grills, and the pick up and disposal of old, unwanted units.

“Next year, on April 1, if they haven’t been equipped with an OPD (overfill protection device), over 40 million 20-pound cylinders will be illegal to fill. Many will still have some propane in them. We’re thinking about picking them up, becoming a collection center, and charging a fee to get rid of them. Somebody’s got to do it, right? It’s going to be a monumental job,” he says.

Since retrofitting old cylinders with the new OPD valve costs $20 to $25, most consumers are expected to simply purchase an OPD-equipped new bottle at a lesser price.

Meanwhile, to keep their business humming in the fall and winter, Phil and Sue Ann – a gourmet cook – team up with sales manager Al Pruitt and conduct a series of 36 cooking classes at the store. Classes, limited to 12-14 people and costing $25 to $45 per session, fill up quickly. Each session lasts 90 minutes or more and covers how to prepare a litany of appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts utilizing a grill.

Menu items include Kansas City and shrimp gumbo; fish chowder and antipasto kabobs; Mongolian BBQ; Texas sausage; fish, steak and chicken; grilled lobster; smoked pheasant; fried green onions; herb bread; potatoes; black eyed peas; cheddar biscuits; spaghetti with carmalized garlic; baked custard; apple crisp; flaming pears and bourbon banana cake.

As if all this isn’t enough to attract customers to the store, they fire up a commercial-sized Texas Smoker throughout the year, park it at the entrance to the store, throw a slab of beef or ribs on it and let the aroma saturate the surroundings. Any individual who stops by is given a slice of the meat, free of charge.

Muller, whose prior career included 27 years as an engineer with Alliant and Honeywell of Minneapolis, organized The Outdoor Cooking Store 10 years ago.

“My wife and I were on a vacation in Texas in 1991 visiting my brother-in-law,” he recalls. “One evening he prepared a delicious dinner for us, using a Lyfetyme grill that could use wood or charcoal as fuel. I was so impressed with the unit that, after visiting the Lyfetyme plant and meeting owner Charlie Davenport, I bought seven and shipped them here. Later that year, I rented a booth at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul and sold all of them the first day.”

Designed to eliminate charring by using indirect heat from a firebox located at one end of the grill, the engineer quickly recognized the potential of the cooker. So did people attending the fair.

Though priced from $265 to $1,275 for a patio grill to $3,000 for a portable commercial unit, they all sold quickly. He even accepted $25,000 worth of orders for 40 more.

His success convinced Muller to become a representative for Lyfetyme during his spare time. Business continued to boom and in 1994, he moved his office from a pole barn behind his Isanti, Minn., home to a 250-square-foot shop at a friend’s marina in White Bear Lake. By the end of the year, he had grossed $250,000 in revenues and was on his way to bigger and better things.

The move to the new office, oddly enough, coincided with his layoff from Alliant due to defense industry cutbacks.

“By that juncture,” said Muller, who was 55 at the time, “we were growing so fast that the business needed full-time attention. My wife was working for another company, and later joined me on a full-time basis.”
“Some people say that everything happens for the best. In our case, it was certainly true. We’ve been very fortunate. But one thing for certain, we work at it.”

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