All Fired Up

It’s no secret that excitement in backyard living has been rising like mercury on the 4th of July. As today’s upscale consumers continue to spend more time, energy and money on creating their ideal home environment, they are – seemingly more than ever – eager to turn up the heat on outdoor entertaining.

This has created an opportunity for kitchen designers – already specialists in creating beautiful, functional kitchen spaces perfect for entertaining – as they take their skills to the great outdoors and focus on America’s newest “trophy room.”

While manufacturers work to create ever more specialized and unique products that answer the growing demand for more upscale, sophisticated outdoor spaces, they are increasingly blurring the lines between the “in” and the “out” of doors. This has left many kitchen designers and their clients wondering, is it inside-out or outside-in? When it comes to the backyard kitchen experience, even manufacturers on the hot-seat are forced to concede that it’s getting harder to tell the difference.

If the outdoor living trend speaks to a larger philosophy in the way consumers are choosing to live their lives these days, then the outdoor kitchen itself is the glowing ember that continues to stoke the flame of that movement.

As we all remember from childhood, the backyard is for playing, not working. And, as soon as we step out into our own backyard, all of the sounds, sights and smells of that childhood come rushing back. So outdoor kitchens become a natural extension of the trend toward home entertaining.

Whether consumers are bubbling to bring the outdoors in or the indoors out, kitchen designers and manufacturers agree that the backyard isn’t just a backyard anymore.

It’s another room in the house. It’s a trend that might give the term “hot-house” a whole new meaning. Because the no-frills, charcoal barbecue cart on wheels that your father stood over while wearing a funny hat is being increasingly passed over for custom-built islands with stainless steel cabinets, infrared burners for searing, slow-cooking burners for meat that falls off the bone, rotisserie systems, smokers, pizza ovens, microwaves, undercounter refrigerators and freezers and, in colder climates, awnings and patio heaters to extend the outdoor cooking season.

According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association, three out of four U.S. households own a grill, so it should be no surprise that consumers are increasingly eager to invest in their backyard living space in order to create these outdoor experiences, and share them with friends and loved ones.

However, the big change from yesteryear is the increasing level of sophistication that is evident in today’s outdoor spaces.

Whatever amenities consumers can imagine for their indoor kitchens, manufacturers say that they can now duplicate them for outside use. And kitchen designers are taking advantage of this opportunity, not only to garner new business, but to revisit their indoor kitchen clients to create an equally spectacular outdoor kitchen for them.

Home on the Range
While once outdoor cooking meant a basic grill, a bag of charcoal and a bit of sunshine, the current trend in outdoor kitchens is moving away from the skinny and toward the whole hog, with weather-resistant cabinets, built-in refrigerators, sinks, ambient lighting, and, as the centerpiece to all this, a high-quality, built-in grill.

But, there’s more. At the ultra high-end, designers are increasingly seeing demand for custom-built islands with pop-up boxes for plasma televisions, surround-sound systems, rafter-mounted heaters, fire pits and martini-glass chilling racks inside professional-grade freezers for the perfect luxury outdoor experience.

This trend toward outdoor entertaining also means separate dining areas with high-end, weather-resistant furniture, which might include lounge chairs and a conversation table made of teak or an oversized jarrah dining set with a tempered-glass table-top. Additionally, multi-functional elements, such as a table with built-in cooktop, are also gaining ground in outdoor kitchens, just as they are in indoor designs.

“It’s like the new out-of-doors family room,” says Ann Rottinghaus, program manager-residential markets for Elkay Manufacturing Co., in Oak Brook, IL. “You have these beautiful extensions of the home with quality furniture, quality cooking appliances, quality plumbing products and lighting like you’ve never seen before.”

If just talking about the concept of backyard living brings out a child-like enthusiasm in outdoor kitchen product manufacturers, one can only imagine what it must bring out in homeowners eager to have their own outdoor dream space – an enthusiasm kitchen designers can surely capitalize on. And kitchen designers are increasingly finding that this outdoor environment is becoming a real and viable extension of the home for their clients, with the same emphasis on functionality and personal expression that indoor kitchens have enjoyed for years.

Jennifer Uihlein Straszewski, executive v.p., U-Line, in Milwaukee, WI, says, “Homeowners are going to great lengths to transform the traditional patio area into a fully-functioning outdoor room.”

“There’s just a vast amount of product out there,” agrees Jane Zalesak with Texas Pit Crafters, in Tomball, TX. She goes on to explain that, for the outdoor kitchen, “The technology is far superior to what it used to be. Years ago, you used to have just a brick structure for an outdoor barbecue, and now there’s such a variety of what you can do [with that space]. People are limited only by their imaginations.”

According to Don Henry, president of BKE Supply, in Indio, CA, stainless steel is the look that people want in their indoor kitchens, and they will continue to want it in outdoor kitchens, as well. “It has the durability and style,” he says.

“Stainless steel is really hot right now,” agrees Rottinghaus, who adds, “I don’t really see that changing.” What she does see changing, however, is the application of more personalized, secondary sinks in outdoor kitchens. “How much fun would it be to have a river-shaped sink welded right into a stainless steel top, and then you have [the whole unit] adjacent to the pond in your backyard?” she asks.

One of the biggest perceptual differences between today’s outdoor kitchens and yesterday’s, agree manufacturers, is that what was once a focus only on the cooking appliances has blossomed into a greater focus on the entire functional, usable space, complete with all of the amenities and details.

Brian Bevan, president of In & Out Cabinetry, Inc., in Oneco, FL, explains, “You don’t just have a big box out there with a gas tank under it. [We’re doing] cabinets, shelves and drawer banks. We even do tilt-outs on our sinks now, just like you would have in an indoor kitchen.”

Bob Woods, v.p./sales for Viking Range Corp., in Greenwood, MS, stresses, “The whole built-in outdoor area is starting to take root in all the markets now. The trend is getting more and more toward permanent outdoor kitchens and away from the carts, even in colder climates.”

A Burning Desire
In addition to the convenience of outdoor cooking and all of the new technologies that make cooking outdoors more functional, many manufacturers point to the focus on backyard living as a natural extension of post-Sept. 11 nesting.

Toni Ouellette, product manager for DCS by Fisher & Paykel, in Huntington Beach, CA, explains, “The money [consumers] would have previously used to take family vacations is now going toward making their homes a place they can use frequently to entertain those they love. Indoor kitchens saw the first big swing on this, and outdoor kitchens are seeing the second.”

“Anything that brings the family together seems to be the big thing right now,” adds Bevan. “And what do we do when we get together?” he asks. “We eat.”

Combining family and friends with an outdoor experience is a recipe for relaxation at any table, but manufacturers caution that outdoor kitchen design should sustain the focus on functionality because, as Rottinghaus says, “In order to fully enjoy the experience, consumers need to have the proper set-up to make outdoor cooking as convenient and conducive to entertaining [guests] as possible.”

Straszewski goes on to add, “A satellite kitchen allows [the consumer] to spend time with guests rather than running back and forth to the house to prepare and serve the food and drinks.” That means the space should be designed with everything needed to prepare and serve a complete meal, from refrigerator to utensil storage, so the primary chef can remain with guests throughout the meal. After all, what good is a top-quality grill if the chef ends up spending half the time running back inside to get plates, utensils, condiments, cold beverages and ice?

For years, those who touted outdoor entertaining claimed it was about “the experience” – the sun in your eyes, the breeze in your hair, the savory cooking smells wafting through the air. But, as counterintuitive as it may sound, according to Rottinghaus, the vigorous interest in outdoor kitchens isn’t just about experiencing the outdoors with friends and family, or even enjoying a char-grilled steak with a glass of wine under the setting sun. Rather, it’s a facet of what she calls “insperience.”

“Insperience,” she explains, illustrates consumers’ desires to bring whatever positive experiences they might have had away from their home into the safety and security of their home environment. The boom in professional-grade appliances for indoor kitchens is an aspect of this idea, she notes, as the consumer seeks to reproduce at home the experience of dining out at a gourmet restaurant. Cooking outdoors is just one more example of this.

Rottinghaus points out, “There’s a lot happening in terms of lifestyle changes. [Outdoor kitchens] are an ‘insperience’ kind of thing to do in the sense of, ‘I don’t have to pack up the entire family and the dog and head to the park in order to have the experience of being at the park.’”

Of course, as a backyard Freud might suggest over a plate of grilled sausages and a cold beer, sometimes a barbecue is just a barbecue. And sometimes consumers just want to enjoy the unique flavor the grill imparts, the casual entertainment of an outdoor gathering and the carefree memories of childhood backyard barbecues. But that doesn’t mean they want to do it in anything less than high style.

For that reason, there are plenty of extras being offered by manufacturers to meet the outdoor cooking enthusiast’s increasingly sophisticated demands.

“The whole concept has grown beyond the barbecue in the backyard,” attests Henry. “Now [the consumer] is looking for things like trash shoots, trash compactors, side-burners, bar systems and infrared technologies.”

He goes on to add that he is seeing a lot of recent adaptations on ceramic-type burners, which indicates the increasing interest in high-heat technology for the outdoor grill.

“Infrared cooking is definitely getting broader appeal,” agrees Viking’s Woods. And, with the marked increase in condo and high-rise development in non-traditional places like Las Vegas and San Diego, he adds, “We might even see a growth in the electric outdoor grilling market.”

Of course, with all outdoor products, durability issues are key. Cabinets must be weatherproof, countertops must be easy to clean and able to resist temperature extremes, refrigeration must meet all outdoor codes, and appliances and faucets should be durable enough to handle whatever Mother Nature can dish out.

To that end, Rottinghaus suggests undermount sinks as ideally suited for outdoor kitchens. “You tend to see a lot more debris settling into crevices in an outdoor kitchen [so clean up is a more important issue],” she states. “And, undermount sinks are much easier to clean than drop-in sinks.”

Where There's Smoke...
As long as the outdoor lifestyle continues to be a hot topic around the dinner table (and picnic table), upscale consumers will continue to search for new and unique ways to create personalized outdoor spaces that facilitate entertaining and spending time at home with their families, while still being able to express their personal design style. And, as long as kitchen designers continue to make their living helping consumers achieve these goals, outdoor kitchens will continue to gain ground as the newest “trophy room.”

But manufacturers are also seeing a trend toward middle-income households investing handsomely in outdoor kitchens. As Ouellette explains, “Outdoor kitchens have become the new status symbol, like cars have been for a long time. [Middle-income consumers] want to spend their money on what increases their value of life most and, suddenly, having the best car on the block isn’t as important as the quality of life an outdoor kitchen can bring [to them].”

Thus, kitchen designers may find a new avenue for profits, even with mid-level clients looking to “trade up” and enjoy a more luxurious lifestyle. Some designers may even find this is an easier “trophy room sell” than indoor kitchens, since outdoor kitchens are more prominently visible, making them a sure-fire “object of envy” for those looking to impress the Joneses.

In fact, Jeff Wimberly, director of sales and marketing for Perlick Corp., in Milwaukee, WI notes, “We have seen an explosion in [the mid-level, outdoor kitchen] market.” Straszewski agrees. Citing an across-the-board willingness on the part of consumers to upgrade their living spaces as a contributing factor to the trend, she explains, “It goes well beyond outdoor kitchens, and really reflects a trend among middle-income households to invest in their homes and create a [whole-house] lifestyle setting with higher-end products and additions.”

“You have a lot of people who bought a home 10 years ago,” observes Henry. “They couldn’t afford [to remodel] back then, but now they’re coming in with home equity loans and [cash from refinancing], and they’re [using that extra money to] put the rest of the features in there and create an outdoor living space.”

Manufacturers point out that backyard grilling islands can go from simple, modular units made of high-density polymer that come in a variety of colors, to granite slab, custom built-ins with multi-zoned burners, gas griddles, wood-fired pizza ovens and crushed ice-makers. In short, there’s something for everyone, and at nearly every price point.

“We have a recessed, drop-down burner that’s built to hold large pots,” comments Zalesak, pointing out her company’s continued interest in offering unique options to the upscale outdoor kitchen consumer. “It’s protected on three sides so it’s safe from the wind, and it’s really convenient for frying turkeys or crawfish boils,” she notes.

Wimberly says that his company is now outfitting its refrigerators with glass doors, which illustrates just how sophisticated the firm thinks the outdoor entertainment industry is becoming. In addition to this, he notes that interior components are also becoming increasingly sophisticated, in line with what indoor kitchens offer, adding, “Our refrigerator shelves pull out like a wine rack does.”

He adds, “[In the not-too-distant future,] there’s going to be a demand for different types of beverages [beyond just the traditional backyard barbecue fare of soda and beer]. For instance, consumers are going to want to be able to [enjoy wine while entertaining outdoors, or] make martinis outside.”

Global Warming
Looking toward the future, Zalesak believes that, because of all the new-home construction these days, consumers will “progressively plan their outdoor kitchens along with their homes from the very beginning.”

Rottinghaus doesn’t see the trend simmering down, either. She anticipates consumers asking themselves, more and more often, ‘Where can I be outside where it doesn’t require travel and still be connected to my safety zone?’ She says she looks forward to seeing “the full media entertainment aspect of an indoor family room being pulled out of doors. It will most certainly go beyond just a great place to hang out with family and occasionally entertain.”

“In climates where outdoor kitchens are already prevalent,” says Straszewski, “we expect the outdoor living areas to become even more elaborate.” She believes that, as the trend grabs hold nationwide, “We anticipate more homeowners in colder climates will want to create outdoor living spaces that work for them.”

Citing the ease with which consumers can now get home equity loans and their eagerness to turn that around into something really spectacular in their backyards, Woods says, “We feel that this is a good time for [Viking] to spend a little bit more time and effort [working with kitchen dealers to meet the needs of the outdoor market].” Bevan at In & Out has even seen his enthusiastic outdoor-centric clients opting to adapt his company’s high-density polymer material, which is traditionally used for outdoor cabinetry construction, to create outdoor showers. “They’re using our panels as floor material and also to enclose the whole shower,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really remarkable.”

“The outdoor living trend is transforming the American backyard into a private getaway destination,” emphasizes Straszweski, “one that homeowners never need to leave home to enjoy.”

If indoor design is necessarily checked by plumbing, walls and doors, the outdoor kitchen is almost burdened by its lack of limitations.

Says Woods, “The fun – and daunting – thing about designing an outdoor kitchen is when you go outside, your restrictions are a lot fewer.”

For kitchen designers, the outdoor kitchen – once the exclusive purview of warmer climates – is increasingly becoming the last explored frontier, a place to take their creativity to new heights, in spaces with fewer limits, creatively or physically.

Much like hot pokers into the flames, new products, new ideas and new technologies continue to breathe life into this vast and often unexplored frontier in home design. “It’s exhilarating,” Woods shares enthusiastically. “Much like the great outdoors itself,” he adds, “when it comes to the outdoor kitchen experience, the sky really is the limit.”