KALAMAZOO — In an era when most companies see outdoor grills as mass-produced commodity items, one Southwest Michigan company has cemented its reputation by taking a contrarian approach.
While other companies are happy churning out cookie-cutter products, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet LLC and its team of craftsmen hand make each of the firm’s high-end grills, what could be described as the Rolls-Royce of cooking equipment.
And the comparison to the luxury automaker isn’t far off. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s products cost many multiples above standard run-of-the-mill grills. A medium-size grill that sells for about $13,000 is the company’s most popular model, and its outdoor kitchens range from $30,000 to $100,000.
With a price tag in that range, the company counts among its wealthy customers a list of celebrities and sports stars. Grilling the owners of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet will get you a couple of A-list names, but little more than that.
“Some of our celebrity clients ask us not to talk about them. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin and Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck have pizza ovens of ours. A number of NFL and NBA players don’t like to be named,” said Russ Faulk, vice president of design and marketing for the company.
The manufacturer was founded in 1906 as Kalamazoo Sheet Metal with a reputation as an expert in sheet metal manufacturing and in the creation of custom products for the pharmaceutical and dairy industries. In the 1990s, the company entered into the design and manufacture of outdoor cooking equipment and changed its name to Kalamazoo Grill.
While most grill manufacturers have embraced automation and prioritized productivity to achieve higher output, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet prides itself on a high level of hands-on craftsmanship, Faulk said.
“That’s the core of the company,” he said.
All of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s engineering, product development, customer service and manufacturing is based in Kalamazoo. The company’s sales and marketing functions are headquartered in Chicago, which is the home of Synetro Capital LLC, the private equity firm that acquired the assets of Kalamazoo Grill in 2005.
Steve Adolph, president of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, said the company’s rate of growth over the last five years has been ahead of the industry average, but he declined to disclose annual revenues for the privately held company.
“I’m proud that we grew steadily through the recession,” he said.
The company builds all of its products to customers’ specifications and then ships them “directly to homes all over the world,” Faulk said. As such, most of the company’s plant in Kalamazoo is dedicated to fabrication, rather than storage, he said. The company sells through select dealers — including Bekins Inc. on 28th Street in Grand Rapids — and via design professionals such as landscape architects, although it also sells direct to homeowners, he said.
“There are many grill manufacturers out there, and we have innovation and an approach to our product that is different than our competition,” Adolph said. “We make the only hybrid-fire grill in the marketplace where you can cook with gas, charcoal or wood. This is unique to Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.”
Adolph said all three avenues — dealer, direct and professional partner sales — are “healthy” sales channels for his company. The company’s main competitors are Viking, Sub Zero/Wolf and Lynx.
One of the competing companies, Greenwood, Miss.-based Viking Range LLC, also has a West Michigan connection. Several years ago, Tom Newhouse, principal of Grand Rapids-based Thomas J. Newhouse Design LLC, created a line of outdoor kitchen cabinetry intended to accompany the Viking Outdoor division’s grills.
“When you get in the premium outdoor grilling and outdoor kitchen environment with larger homes and upscale homes, there’s a really interesting thing. Outdoor kitchens are growing in popularity, and the grill is the center of that,” Newhouse said. “You can’t grill indoors because of the smell, the smoke and all the grease. (Outside), you have all the fun of grilling and smoke is not the issue.”
From a design standpoint, the outdoor kitchens open up a different range of opportunities. Material choice is critical in an open-air environment, he said. Gone are woods in favor of stainless steel and stone. Outdoor kitchens are also more focused on the presentation aspect of cooking, which is more of a social activity when grilling is involved, Newhouse said.
“Once you take away the cart and put the grill on a base cabinet, you duplicate the indoor kitchen outdoors, only it’s all stainless,” Newhouse said. “These are full-blown kitchens with the grill very much at the center.”
Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet also offers other products to go alongside its grills, including a line of outdoor appliances and cabinetry. The company’s pizza oven is its best-selling item that many people order online.
What can’t be ordered with a few keystrokes are the company’s outdoor kitchens, which are all built-to-order right down to the stainless steel grill grates. Faulk said the process is a lot like ordering custom cabinetry.
“We have a very broad selection of products which can be customized” including the broadest selection of outdoor refrigeration available, he said. “We provide design support and do design drawings for every kitchen we sell.”
The process of building an outdoor kitchen from start to finish can be as fast as a week or up to six months if it’s part of a new home construction.
California is a big market for the company, which should come as no surprise given the climate. What may come as a surprise is the popularity of the Kalamazoo’s product line with residents of states like Michigan and New York where the climate is often less than ideal for outdoor cooking.
“Outdoor kitchens are newer to northern markets. People have a hard time imagining that a refrigerator could sit out in the dead of winter covered with snow,” Faulk said. “Most of our customers grill year ’round. We find that when we talk to a lot of our customers in Michigan, they like the fact that they can cook outside whenever they want.”
The emergence of chefs as celebrities and of cooking shows that feature lesser-known chefs competing against one another for bragging rights has dramatically increased the general public’s interest in food prepared and cooked well. Cooking outdoors, Faulk said, makes the meal more of a special occasion.
“There is an overall big trend toward people putting more of an emphasis on outdoor space,” Adolph said. “People believe they can do anything outside that they can do inside. We can outfit them with an outdoor kitchen (that) gives them the flexibility to do anything outside they can do inside.”
But regardless of the size of the investment in grilling equipment, one local grilling expert says buyers still need to have a fundamental knowledge of grilling techniques to get the most out of their purchases.
“There are a lot of … cheap grills on the market that can ruin a grilling experience,” said John Rumery, a Grand Rapids-based communications entrepreneur and grilling aficionado. “So the old maxim ‘you get what you pay for’ is true with grills, but with a diminishing return after a certain point.”
— Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.