The Backyard Is Open For Business

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Photo courtesy Napoleon GrillsPhoto courtesy Napoleon GrillsWhen the public went into a mandatory quarantine in mid-March, homeowners were left, whether they wanted to or not, to shelter at home. And when you spend that much time in one space, it's normal to re-evaluate things. The big question a lot of them were asking: How can I make my home feel bigger? So it was no surprise that, amid the shutdown, there was excitement in the outdoor kitchen industry.

Not only do outdoor kitchens offer another livable space in the home, they increase the value of the home itself.

"Homeowners are seeing outdoor kitchens as a win-win right now," says Wade Fortin, marketing manager at Bull Outdoor Products. The company, like other outdoor kitchen manufacturers, was reporting strong numbers during the shutdown β€” logging well over a million impressions in its social media and email marketing campaigns and over 18,000 visits to its website each week β€” and expressing excitement for the upcoming season.

"Our marketing and metrics confirm that people, if they aren't already, will be shopping for outdoor kitchens," says Fortin. "Homeowners realize that the Coronavirus is making them spend more time at home and that they should be investing in their backyards."

As the states start to re-open and people continue to think about a home-based lifestyle, dealers can take advantage of the increased interest in the outdoor kitchen market. We talked to several manufacturers about what the kitchen sale will look like, especially in a post-COVID environment.


The pool and spa industry and the outdoor kitchen industry have long been a universal fit. Once an add-on, outdoor kitchens have now become commonplace. "A huge percentage of pool installations get accompanied by an outdoor kitchen install," says Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of product at Kalamazoo. "And right now, there's never been a better time to maximize what consumers are able to do at home."

Outdoor kitchens can make the backyard experience more enjoyable for many reasons. They give homeowners, for example, the best chance to experience a restaurant-style performance. "Indoor ovens and grills cannot perform to the level of a restaurant unit because of the heat involved," says Faulk. "But in the backyard, it's fair game."

"I also talk to customers a lot about what an outdoor kitchen does for their quality of life. Cooking outdoors is a very different experience than cooking indoors," says Faulk. "It turns any meal into a special occasion. Some use outdoor kitchens even more than the indoor kitchen."

As for Faulk, the global shutdown has significantly increased his time spent outside. "I am incredibly grateful for my outdoor kitchen at my house, and I've never been more appreciative of it than I am now. I've spent more days cooking outside in the past four weeks than probably at any period of my life."

An outdoor kitchen is also about appealing to the senses, particularly smell. A large selling point for Kimberly Stuteville, national sales director at Napoleon Grills, is the argument that consumers can take smell-sensitive foods outside. "In the morning, consumers want to go outside and cook their bacon and eggs, so their house doesn't smell like bacon all day," she says. "For some people, that's offensive. For others, it's lovely."

Outdoor kitchens can also serve as an entertainment hub, because in many households, the kitchen is the heart of the home. It's also a matter of convenience, as they eliminate the need to travel from the kitchen to the backyard to entertain.

"When building a pool, it's usually a financed event," says Wade Fortin. "And to add an outdoor kitchen is pennies on the dollar when it comes to a monthly payment. It's an easy upsell and will make the homeowner's decision on getting one extremely simple."

Photo courtesy KalamazooPhoto courtesy Kalamazoo



In a post-COVID market, consumers are further asking for an immersive, omnichannel experience. Even when regulations are lifted, social distancing will continue to be on homeowners' minds and an online presence will be more important than ever. Luckily, online retailers have the benefit of infinite shelf space to showcase their outdoor kitchen designs and products.

Still, some dealers are hesitant to make this investment. "There might be some trepidation from brick-and-mortar dealers saying that if they put the products online, there won't be traffic in the store," says Kimberly Stuteville. "But that's absolutely not the case."

Stuteville says that 94% of all Napoleon's consumer searches start online. "When you think of the idea of a showroom, it's as much of a web room as it is a showroom," she says. "In our web room experience, we offer all sorts of ad mats, videos and 360-degree views, so the consumer can get the feeling as if they walked around the product itself."

But the showroom visit will definitely not be eliminated. "Once we are free of the virus, homeowners can go in and shop and have that extended experience to be able to touch and feel in either type of environment," says Stuteville. "But having started the shopping experience online, they'll feel more comfortable."

When customers do enter showrooms, investing in an outdoor kitchen display is very important to closing the sale. And Philip Chamberlain, national sales manager at Forshaw, says showroom location plays a huge role in setup. "We give dealers a showroom setup based on what the popular trends are in their area," says Chamberlain. "Dealers can also pick what they want to display, depending on what they think is going to sell."

Chamberlain says, for example, that stores in southern locations will sell more refrigeration than in northern areas. Finishes also vary from north to south. "People may be doing more stone up in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota than they would be in Georgia," he says.

Kalamazoo also advises dealers to invest in a display area. "The goal is to create an environment where customers can dream of what they can do at home from the very get-go," says Faulk. "We help design the displays for our dealers as much as they'll let us. We also provide them with hands-on design support, from concept sketches all the way through fully detailed CAD drawings for the space. That's definitely helpful for our dealers because no one knows our products better than we do."

Part of imagining the kitchen at home is, of course, firing up the kitchen right there at the store. Forshaw, for instance, has several dealers that put their kitchen displays outdoors specifically for this reason. "On a busy weekend or if a store is having a promotion, why not fire up the grill, start cooking and give away some food. It could be as simple as cooking hot dogs," says Chamberlain.

For space-pressed retailers who don't have room to display the kitchen outright, a digital experience can serve the purpose. Bull Outdoor Products gives smaller stores the option to display a media center. "This way, dealers can play videos on loops to still show what is available," said Fortin. "Because the old adage that says 'You sell what you show' is very true."

Photo courtesy KalamazooPhoto courtesy Kalamazoo



Some manufacturers have noticed that, in the post-COVID outdoor kitchen market, the installation process is changing, which is ultimately affecting design. "People do not want as many industry professionals entering their homes and backyards," says Russ Faulk. "And Kalamazoo has actually seen its kitchen design requests change in reaction to this."

It used to be that 75% of Kalamazoo kitchens included masonry elements, which meant different lines of tradesmen had to enter each home. Now, the company is having to make kitchen revisions to take out the masonry, so the installation requires just a couple of installers.

"It's an interesting dynamic that I hadn't been thinking of before the pandemic," says Faulk. "But when the first customer asked me to take out masonry elements, it hit me that this might be a change. And I said, 'Well, of course we can do that for you.' And we've had other customers make the same request since."

Fortin is also seeing more requests for roofs over the kitchen installation. "Those living in seasonal areas want to be using their outdoor kitchen year-round," he says. "And now that people are spending more time outside, in areas where the season is short, customers are going to be looking to adapt their outdoor space to even further accommodate harsher weather conditions."

Manufacturers are also predicting a spike in DIY units. "People have shown more interest in our Oasis cabinetry, which is a DIY cabinetry set, or as we like to call it, the adult Lego set," says Stuteville. "Homeowners are able to put it together very quickly, and they have a completely assembled outdoor kitchen."


Before the Coronavirus shutdown, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association predicted U.S. sales in outdoor kitchens to increase by 16% for the 2020 season. "Listening to other manufacturers, they're saying their numbers are through the roof," says Stuteville.

This isn't the first time the industry has seen a spike in numbers. "We saw this a bit post-recession, and we're seeing it again," says Stuteville. "When our country responds to a crisis, the response is to go back home. And people start to reinvest in things that are important."

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