Amid the rising abundance of specialty restaurants, regional food crazes and a cultural fixation on eating in new and exciting atmospheres, the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal has held strong and even found new life as part of a larger trend of outdoor living.
The grilling and outdoor dining culture has long gone hand-in-hand with the hobby of gardening. The activities complement one another and give people a reason to be a part of nature while maintaining the comforts of home. Gardeners with outdoor cooking and eating spaces have the added bonus of picking their dinner right from their yards and dining outside.
Brienne Gluvna Arthur, better known as Brie, a garden blogger based at briegrows.com, has taken note of the prominence that foodscaping is taking in the gardening world.
“It’s the incorporation of edibles in very ordinary spaces, right outside your door,” says Arthur, who is also a correspondent on PBS’s “Growing a Greener World.” “By incorporating food, it’s giving people an added bonus for self-sustainable landscape management.”
Although young adults are known to be more food-conscious than other age groups, Arthur says self-cultivation of food at home is a practice shared by many generations.
“Truly, it’s not even just generational,” Arthur says. “I’ve worked with people in their 60s and 70s that are interested in growing food, but it’s definitely becoming a priority for younger families. Being able to grow some of your own supplemental produce is really empowering.”
Cooking what you grow at home is a natural companion to preparing food over a live grill, given the convenience of picking, preparing and eating all in one outdoor space. The appeal of grilling has fed into the resurgence of home entertainment, with people more often choosing to host loved ones and cook at home rather than going out to eat, Arthur says.
“I think that it’s a great way to engage a broader part of your family,” Arthur says. “My husband isn’t in horticulture professionally, but [he] really enjoys grilling. Having a beer, listening to music, being outside. It’s great that he can go out, gather potatoes and carrots, broccoli and cauliflower and make something right out there, and we can serve our friends. We host dinner parties; everything [is gathered] from our suburban foodscape, cooked right outside in front of our friends. It’s a really great way to engage everybody.”
Some garden center retailers are tuned into this outdoor lifestyle. Village Green in Rockford, Ill., stocks more than 130 styles of outdoor furniture at its garden center and patio location, as well as a roughly 60,000-square-foot showroom of grills, outdoor kitchen sets and cooking accessories. Jessica Salisbury, general manager at Village Green, says the current outdoor cooking culture makes grills an “easy item to sell.”
“I think it’s trendy because anything food related right now is trendy, whether it’s cooking your own food or a farm-to-table type lifestyle, growing your own vegetables,” Salisbury says. “I think it’s just part of entertainment, it’s part of cooking outside in the summertime, they kind of go hand-in-hand. It feels like people are entertaining more at home rather than going out.”
Flavor of the day
Among the many types of gas and charcoal grills on the market, the style of outdoor cookware possibly getting the most hype is the home smoker known as the Big Green Egg. This charcoal-fired smoker differs from conventional grills by cooking at a lower temperature for longer cook times. Village Green has sold the Big Green Egg since 2010, but sales of the home smoker have nearly doubled in the past two years, Salisbury says. Sales are driven in part by the Big Green Egg’s reputation for quality and its lifetime warranty.
“As a company, they have a huge internet presence, so to be honest, it’s almost a self-selling item,” Salisbury says. “People do the research on their own, and then they’ll come into the store, and we’ll talk to them a bit. But most of the time, people have done the research themselves. There are so many different things you can cook on the Big Green Egg.”
In her experience, Salisbury says the majority of grill customers are primarily men in their 40s and 50s, but the grilling market stretches across age groups between the mid-20s and 70s. Independent retailers can also get an edge on big box grill dealers by matching their prices and beating their selection. Salisbury says that being a Weber Grills alliance dealer — a company recognized by Weber as being able to provide excellent service and support for its grills — and selling at minimum advertised pricing has reduced the challenge of specializing in outdoor furnishings at Village Green.
“We’re an alliance dealer, so we have things that are different that [customers] can’t find in box stores, so [grill manufacturers] try to give independents an edge, since their product is so saturated,” Salisbury says. “As far as selling the Big Green Egg, it’s a protected item, so there’s nobody else in our area that sells it. So, that’s great.”
However, specializing in grills and patio furniture isn’t without its risks. Salisbury says the demands on floor space are high and that grills tend to be a lower profit-margin item compared to outdoor furniture.
“There are a lot of [grilling] accessories, and even though they’re a good seller, they take up a lot of inventory dollars,” Salisbury says. “We’re fortunate enough that we have the distributor that we go through with the Big Green Egg. Also, there’s a Weber Grills factory maybe 30 miles away, so we can go pick up our orders. We usually do weekly orders to try to keep our inventory numbers low.”
Arthur says more retailers could benefit from expanding into the grilling and outdoor living genre with quality cookware inventory. In this way, garden centers could more easily tap into the growing popularity of outdoor dining and grilling as hobbies.
“[Retailers] have got to start stocking quality grills,” Arthur says. “Many garden centers don’t have anything that’s actually tying the garden to the kitchen. You shop at a garden center because you want quality, and you don’t get that at the box store. I think garden centers are losing a huge opportunity to compete in a ring with [other retailers] that only cover the kitchen. Garden centers can have a little crossover there.”
For those willing to make the inventory and showroom space investment demanded by catering to the garden-bound grill masters in their market, garden centers that traditionally focus on plant goods can grab an entirely new demographic of home chefs. Salisbury recommends looking to becoming a Big Green Egg dealer to stand out from other grilling stores.
“I would really stress to the independents that the biggest thing they could be carrying to help increase their sales is to try and sell the Big Green Egg,” Salisbury says. “The Big Green Egg is what makes you special.”
On the other hand, Arthur says overinvesting in the trendiest product may come with its own risks, as not all home chefs are interested in smoking their food.
“It’s not that you don’t want that ability, but you only have so much patio space and you need to devote that to a grill that’s going to accommodate your everyday lifestyle,” Arthur says.
No matter which way garden centers approach this trend, the popularity of grilling among gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts is solid and does not look to be going anywhere. In fact, many believe grilling to have strong connections to human history, going as far back as when mankind first harnessed fire to cook meat. Considering the precedent behind cooking outdoors, it’s clear that grilling is more than a fad.