Grilling The Expert at All Things Barbecue
by Micah Cheek
All Things Barbecue in Wichita, Kansas, realized that the best advertising for outdoor cookware happens in the backyard, when neighbors get together in the backyard and say, “How the heck did you cook these ribs?” That’s why All Things Barbecue has focused on consumer education and turning customers into their marketing team.
When All Things Barbecue was founded in 2009, it was a rough time for many businesses, but it was becoming a great time for outdoor cooking. “People who have had decades in this business talk about how barbecue tends to improve as economies get tight. If people aren’t going out, they’re hanging out at home more,” says Don Cary, All Things Barbecue’s President. “It’s just a matter of fact: As the economy gets tight, these businesses tend to do equal or better.” Barbecuing and grilling have become part of the routine for consumers who have less money to travel or entertain, but still want to do something special. “This isn’t new, but they call it a staycation. You still have your time off, but instead of heading off to the lake or the mountains, you’re simply spending dollars in your backyard.”
When consumers can make great food with a grill or smoker, everyone who enjoys it becomes a potential customer. “The thing of it is, we’ve become known. We have many thousands of units in our home town,” says Cary. “There are people who buy one of our cookers, and then a neighbor gets one.” The key to making sure new grill and smoker owners can show off their skills is education, including information on hand to anyone walking through the store. “A lot of times people have experienced what a cooker can do for them, and then they come in with a leg up on that. And then it’s a process of education,” says Cary. “This video plays on a 50- inch TV above our products, I find that to be important. People sometimes aren’t educated enough to ask good questions, so the video helps them out.”
All Things Barbecue has also fed this community of cooks a stream of recipes and content by developing a web presence with YouTube. “We have a YouTube channel that we’ve built that has really done a good job,” says Cary. “We started doing this YouTube thing just a couple of years ago. As it began to get shape and traction, then we started doing more in it.” The channel grew into tutorial videos on many types of grills and smokers, product reviews and recipes. All Things Barbecue now has over 100,000 followers. “This past weekend, after a class was over, a couple said, ‘We flew here from San Francisco for the weekend.’ They had found our channel, gotten into it, ordered this pellet cooker and cooked on it, and made the trip out,” adds Cary. “In November, we had seven states represented outside our own … It is a destination.”
All Things Barbecue keeps the conversation going in the store with classes that keep people going back to their patio. Cary has dedicated a section of the store to cooking classes, with a prep and dining area inside, and grills or smokers outdoors. “It’s a higher-end appeal. We have a large gas-fired stove top, double-door oven, hoods above that, it looks like a combination of home and warehouse,” says Cary. “Then you can walk onto our patio that has a dozen grills on it. We don’t have that problem with smoke clearing out like you might think.” The classes bring in a wide range of students, some of whom are just looking for a fun date night with Friday night grilling and wine pairings, and some of whom are veteran barbecuers building their expertise.
“If I had to average a weekend, it’s half new and half repeat [customers]. It depends on the class. It keeps us on our toes creating new class content, new items and new methods,” Cary adds. That new content comes from many different corners of Wichita and beyond, giving students an opportunity to try global flavors and try out some unusual cuts. “Believe me, we reach into every nook and cranny. We had a friend of ours and a local sushi chef here build a beef negimaki recipe,” says Cary. “In beef, the brisket is the ultimate, but we do strips, standing rib roasts, and teres major, also known as a petite tender. Tri-tips, flanks and hangars are super popular. We do fish well. We did an event where we had an eight-pound piece of ahi tuna that we seared fast and served [almost] raw. There’s nothing we haven’t tackled here.”
High-end barbecuing equipment caters to a very specific clientele: Middle-income families who are making improvements to their homes and backyards while trying to become more competent cooks. “Starting in the mid-30s, incomes are middle and up. And that’s where our sales come from. Everybody shows up, but the people who have helped us to gain traction and grow are [ages] 35-65 and couples,” says Cary. “They’re making an investment, they’re spending time together, so it’s common that they come and shop together.” The reason All Things Barbecue has all these different education resources is to make improving cooking skills easy and trying new things as simple as possible. “The average person is coming in wanting to cook a better meal,” says Cary. “People are learning, they ask questions about why [their] chicken’s dry, they start getting education on cooking to temperature, brining, seasoning, the whole thing. People begin to get interested in improving their cooking in general.”
All Things Barbecue offers more traditional gas grills, but as consumers see the exciting outdoor options like smokers and pizza ovens, they really get into different heat and smoke sources. “I think gas grills are considered to be quick and simple; they’re not afraid of them. If consumers aren’t familiar with the grill, they don’t know what is required of it and what to do, and I understand that,” says Cary. “We have people with higher cooking IQs that show up in our store. They’ve been building up their interest, so it’s easy for them to come in.” Pellet fired cookers, offset heat smokers that feed wood pellets into a heating element automatically, are tools that give home cooks a laser-like degree of control over temperature and time. These are the appliances that make brisket for the family easy, and will take care of ribs while the cook steps away to host the party.
When cooks get the knowledge of how to best use these appliances, an obsession often develops. “You’re more and more likely to know someone cooking on one,” says Cary. “Pellet is the fastest growing of the smaller categories [of heat sources]. Charcoal has been number two, and there are certain aspects of that that are being challenged by pellet grills. It’s down a few percent since a few years ago. I think [customers] are interested in better-tasting food, and I think the visibility of the pellet grill has really come on in the last five years.”
Pellet cookers are also pulling double or triple duty as smokers, grills and ovens, giving their owners one machine that does it all. “On the other hand, once they get that, next thing you know, they’re coming in and buying another grill for another cooking style,” adds Cary. “A good grill that’s versatile and you don’t have to fight- that’s what you’re after. After that they’re comfortable and they can make things they couldn’t imagine.”