During the past few years, when many retail categories were standing still, outdoor kitchens were a major bright spot. The category was not only posting gains, it was poised for significant future growth.
The outdoor kitchen trend transcends the boom and bust cycles of our economy, reports Matt Chadwick, president of Chadwick Outdoor Kitchens, in Naples, FL. "When the real estate boom was at its peak, people were building outdoor kitchens to add value to their homes. Now, people are looking to stay in the homes they have and improve them. Outdoor kitchens are a great way to add a new functional space to the home without building a single wall."
"Homeowners are looking for ways to maximize their living spaces and the enjoyment of their homes," concurs Dawn Whyte, president/principle designer, Designs by Dawn, Inc., in Petoskey, MI. "A new outdoor living space is a great way to update the home and make it feel new and exciting again."
"People are entertaining in their homes more frequently, rather than going out," adds Whyte. "Outdoor kitchens and living spaces can help create the feeling of a vacation at home, and also provide excellent spaces for entertaining family, friends and neighbors."
While the range of products for outdoor living spaces seems to grow daily, the cooking center is still the most fundamental part of the overall design. Cabinets, food prep areas and seating also play a significant role.
A professional-style grill - whether gas or a gas/wood hybrid - is usually number one on a client's wish list. "A quality grill is the centerpiece of the outdoor kitchen," stresses Chadwick.
He strongly recommends going for the best quality grill the customer can afford - "even if it means losing that side burner or getting rid of the turbo-powered margarita maker," he remarks. "You want a grill that has at least a 15-year warranty and uses 304 grade stainless steel, so it won't rust."
In addition to the grill, a single- or double-side burner is suggested. "It enables the homeowner to boil a pot of corn while the meat is grilling," comments Whyte.
While earlier outdoor cooking areas pretty much stopped at the grill, today the cooking station is surrounded by cabinetry specifically made to stand up to the elements.
"Customers realize the importance of good, weather-resistant cabinetry that can withstand the changes in seasons and temperatures, while still protect their contents," offers Whyte.
Today's outdoor cabinets are made of everything from marine-grade wood, polymer materials and stainless steel to cypress, cedar, teak and bamboo.
Stainless steel cabinets are still a front-runner for many designers due to their durability. The newest versions of these cabinets feature powder coatings in hundreds of colors and even wood-grain looks.
To blend the stainless steel look with the natural surroundings, many designers are opting for stone/stainless blends. "We're doing more things like stone enclosures, and we're putting stainless steel inserts within the enclosures - an insert of drawers or a pull-out trash can," reports Randy Shaw, president and owner, Nordic Kitchens, in New Orleans, LA. "It softens the industrial look of stainless."
"Since outdoor cabinets are a fully custom product, our customers can personalize their design with details such as etched or stained glass inserts and shelving, louver doors, natural stone and surfaces and other custom details," adds Vance Chason, v.p. and designer/planner, Outdoor Kitchens & More, in Miami, FL.
For cabinet interiors, pull-out trash cans are a popular amenity. Other requests include deep drawers and pull-out shelving for ease of use.
In addition to cabinets, customers are looking for ample counter space for food preparation. "Homeowners are also asking for islands when space permits so guests will have a place to gather while the food is being prepared," Whyte states. "Just as guests tend to gather around the main kitchen island, an island in an outdoor kitchen is also a popular ‘hang out' spot."
And Then Some
While kitchen and bath designers can make a nice profit from items their customers know they want, it's the additional amenities - the ones that clients may know little about - that really push margins higher.
"The extra details are what make the outdoor space really spectacular, and also increase the function," notes Whyte.
In addition to side burners, accessories for the grill include rotisseries, smoker boxes, custom grill plates, griddles, barbecue trays, fryers and steamers. "These all add a ton of functionality that will out cook your indoor kitchen," stresses Chadwick.
A deep fryer works well outside, "because nobody really wants the smell of hot grease in the house," comments David Shay, AKBD, ASID/ip, kitchen and bath designer, Cooks Design Studio, in Sarasota, FL. "I've had numerous clients who like to fish but don't want to cook their catch in the house. With the outdoor fryer, the fish ends up getting cooked outside, and the odors are no longer a part of the house."
Shaw notes that the kamado-style cooker - the ceramic egg - is also growing in popularity. "It gives people the best of both worlds," he explains. "Now, they can have this stainless steel built-in barbecue, and then a few feet away a built-in kamado-style cooker that retains heat and moisture and gives almost a convection style of cooking. It's actually a smoker."
Pizza ovens are also gaining momentum in the outdoor kitchen, especially those that are wood-fire or gas rather than brick.
"I have recommended the Alfresco VersaBurner, which is a 60,000 BTU burner that's great for a 60 qt. pot for cooking lobsters and crabs," notes Shaw. To go with it, he suggests a pot filler. "Instead of keeping them at the typical counter height, we drop them down to 18" so there is no need to lift the heavy pot," he reports.
While clients may not initially understand the need for a ventilation system with an outdoor kitchen, designers cannot stress enough the importance of including some kind of vent hood for this type of space.
"A lot of covered patio areas have a natural capture zone for the smoke from the grill," explains Shay. "When your food is being fired up and you're creating all of that smoke and odor, it sort of billows out and gets caught in the ceiling. And then when you open up the sliding door, it gets sucked into the house."
And, just like indoors, a beautiful backsplash can really personalize the space.
"A backsplash is a great way to add profitability," remarks Whyte. "Just like in their primary kitchen, homeowners often put the outdoor kitchen backsplash on the back burner, but a nice backsplash can add so much personality and interest to an outdoor kitchen."
Whyte's firm proposes a backsplash right from the start so the completed space "looks finished, and not like something is missing behind the cabinetry," she states.
Once customers get into the idea of personalizing the space with a backsplash, the upgrades begin. Whyte notes that she's had customers who have had special tiles they wanted used in the backsplash. Chason adds that the inclusion of metal and mosaic backsplashes, while more costly, provide added dimension and style.
Whyte has had requests to incorporate different stones and materials into custom concrete countertops for a more personal touch. "This can include pebbles or beach glass that the customer collected on a trip," she remarks.
To increase profits, Whyte also tries to incorporate roof structures in her outdoor spaces. "These provide shade and allow clients to use the outdoor kitchen on rainy days. They also help to protect the products from the weather," she notes.
Overhead structures can also protect the latest key addition to outdoor entertainment spaces - the flat screen television. "You have to be more cognizant of configuring the space so that direct sunlight is not going to hit the screen," notes Shay.
One of the most important considerations when creating an outdoor entertainment space is ease of maintenance, according to kitchen and bath designers. "Customers want to have a space they can enjoy with minimal work required to keep it looking good," stresses Whyte.
Likewise, there's a growing need for products that are rated and made for outdoor use.
Shay stresses that one of the problems with a multi-year recession is that "companies are more cautious about research and development. So, it's going to be incumbent on us as designers to encourage the industry to produce more products that are suitable for outdoors," he comments.
"For instance, a dishwasher outside makes sense, but no one offers an outdoor warranty on dishwashers," notes Shaw.
"The outdoor kitchen is more than a new space - it's an investment in a lifestyle that is about family, good friends and great food," Chadwick concludes.