The Great Outdoors

The Great Outdoors

The trend toward cocooning has taken to the great outdoors, with high-end consumers looking toward outdoor kitchens as the newest frontier in cooking and entertaining and as the new status symbol.

By Janice Anne Costa

The outdoor flavors, the experience of enjoying food hot off the grill, the fresh air environmentall of these create a unique experience that consumers not only desire, but are increasingly willing to invest handsomely in. And, while a simple BBQ may once have sufficed, today's outdoor cooking centers now come with everything and the kitchen sink.

From multi-function, high-powered grills with warming drawers and weather-proof  cabinets and countertops to outdoor refrigeration and  wine units, patio heaters, sinks, dishwashers and more, today's outdoor kitchen contains nearly all the amenities of its indoor counterparts and therefore provides great opportunities for kitchen designers looking to expand into uncharted yet wonderfully familiar territory.

The Outdoor Experience
Who wants the outdoor cooking experience? The answer is simple: pretty much everyone. While outdoor kitchens were once exclusively the purview of those lucky enough to be living in climates that remain warm year round, patio heaters, rolling carts, modular cooking islands, weather-proof materials and other innovations have made the outdoor kitchen more appealing to even those who live in cold weather climates. After all, if you can enjoy the taste of summer year round, why not?

As Mary Jo Camp, CKD, CBD, CID, of the CA-based McPhails Appliance explains it, "One of the great icons of modern life is the backyard cookout. The backyard really is the new frontier of the home, and the outdoor kitchen is a natural extension of the indoor kitchen."

"Outdoor kitchens are about the experience," stresses Brian Eskew, director of marketing for DCS, in Huntington Beach, CA. "Being outdoors, having a glass of wine, cooking steaksit's a great way to relax and entertain, because it makes people feel good." And, he adds, with BBQ technology becoming so advanced, "It's easy to do, so even indoor cooking enthusiasts are now inclined to use these [systems] there's no messy charcoal, it's fast, easy and fun."

Likewise, Larry Lamkins, CKD, CBD, director of marketing and director of product support for DACOR, in Pasadena, CA, believes the whole outdoor experience is key to this market segment's growing popularity. He states, "The feel of outdoor entertaining and the overall ambiance is significantly different from indoors. Some of the best lighting is created by God. It's an environment that's very different. Indoors just isn't as comfortable or fun or uplifting. People really respond to [being outdoors] on an emotional level."

Camp believes that the growing focus on the home, which has led to greater interest in gardening, gourmet cooking and entertaining, is a major contributing factor to the trend toward taking the kitchen concept outside.

Larry Ferguson, director of sales and marketing for the Richmond, IN-based Marvel Industries, concurs: "This is really just a continuation of the cocooning trend. The events that have taken place in our country [have led] many more people to prefer entertaining at home. People seem to be going out less and less, and spending more time with their families and friends at home."

But it's not just about the desire to entertain or spend time with family, according to Lamkins. As he explains it, "the grill flavor of food and the [outdoor] baking or rotisserie cooking of food has different flavors [than those you get from cooking indoors]. And, there are unique recipes that can be done outdoors that are a bit more challenging to do inside, like smoking or cooking with flavor chips."

Dale Persons, v.p./Public Affairs of the Greenwood, MS-based Viking Range Corp. agrees: "We're seeing a lot of people cooking outdoors, even in inclement weather. The flavors are different smoking, grilling and the BTUs are higher. Plus, you don't have to worry about clean up."

The growing number of cooking shows on television today is also driving this trend, according to Tom Meyer, president of Vermont Islands, in Putney, VT.

Meyer also believes the outdoor kitchen is a natural extension of the way people live today. As he notes, "Today, if you have a party in your house, everybody is hanging around the kitchen anyway. Taking the kitchen outside makes it more of a casual atmosphere and it's well suited for today's lifestyle."

"For example," he continues, "rather than having a nice grill going, and having to have your back to the crowd while screaming to your wife to get more marinade sauce, [an outdoor kitchen set up] makes the user more accessible. It also facilitates people chipping in and cooking together."

Of course, the outdoor kitchen, just like its indoor counterpart, is also popular because it makes a style statement. "The beautiful trophy kitchen has become the norm, so now [upscale consumers] are looking for the next step, and that's the outdoor kitchen," Persons believes.

But, while the outdoor kitchen is certainly a great way to impress the Joneses, Ferguson asserts that this is not just a trend for the super high end. As he states, "I talk to people who may not have the most elaborate outdoor set up, but with the larger grills, they're spending more and more time in their outdoor patio or deck.

"Refrigeration gives convenient access to cold beverages and if you're entertaining, you want to be able to keep cold items cold until it's time to serve them, and meats cool until it's time to put them on the grill," he adds.

Certainly there are plenty of extras that can be added on from woks to warming drawers, dishwashers to patio heaters but the level of complexity is really up to the consumer.

As Meyer notes, "We make kitchens from $3,500 to $60,000. This includes bars, grills, seating areas, warming drawers, refrigeration, sinks, etc. It is really a rapidly growing market and [not just for the super affluent]."

So, what makes up the average outdoor kitchen? Dealers and manufacturers agree that it can be as simple or complex as the homeowner wants.

According to Camp, "Outdoor kitchens can be as complete as an indoor space, with a ventilation hood, countertops, refrigerator, cooktop, cabinet storage, sink, dishwasher and all the [trimmings]. Or, it can simply be a beautiful space to hold a grill that does it all." She notes that there are two types of grills that can be specified freestanding (grills that are attached to carts, and that can be moved from one location to another) and built in (grills that consist of the BBQ only, with no cart). A grilling island must be specified, while modular islands can be custom or standard sizes.

"The current trend," Camp continues, "is toward the fully equipped outdoor kitchen." That might include a wok, warming drawer, side burners and fully featured grill, as well as storage drawers, a smoker and griddle, bar refrigeration, sink, dishwasher, patio heater, serving cart, sink, cabinets, and more."

Meyer explains that his company offers "a line of modular components, just like you would with an interior kitchen. We were an interior kitchen company and have specifically designed these pieces to take outside. We supply complete CAD drawings of the systems for designers and retailers. It gives the user options instead of going with a fixed base or an island where you can't add to it because you're limited by the size."

Ferguson says, "Our involvement is from the refrigeration end, and we've seen the trend of refrigeration and other appliances going outdoors, from dishwashers to bar stations. It started with the grill, and the next thing you know, people using the grill outdoors frequently decided they needed refrigeration, too. Then it [snowballed] to include sinks, dishwashers, [storage for dry food] and more [of the amenities you'd find in an indoor kitchen.]"

At DCS, Eskew says his company is increasingly seeing the complete outdoor kitchen, with BBQ, side burners, built-in refrigeration, beer tappers, outdoor warming drawer, access drawers for tools and condiments, storage and patio heaters. He notes, "We've done a lot of work to develop an outdoor cart so it serves many of the functions of an island, with side shelves, storage drawers, etc., so it really is a mobile outdoor kitchen."

Eskew adds that, "Even in the Midwest and Northeast, the BBQ market still has numerous cooking enthusiasts, so they buy units with a cart that they can roll into the garage during the off season."

Camp notes the the most popular materials for outdoor kitchens are those that are durable: stainless steel, tile, stucco, brick, stone, concrete, and certain species of wood such as mahogany and teak "woods that would remind you of boats." She adds, "If you're in a protected or covered area, you can use other materials as well."

Design Opportunity
Camp sees the outdoor kitchen as a natural for kitchen and bath designers looking to grow their businesses. "The opportunities for design are plentiful," she says, noting that "the materials are the same kind you'd use in the kitchen and bath in most cases. You'd use the same sources, the same construction people, mostly the same design principles, the same trade peopleyou've got an established client alreadywhen you think about it, it's really a no brainer."

Camp also notes that designing an outdoor kitchen needs to take into consideration the same kind of lifestyle issues a designer would look at when designing an indoor space. She states, "You have to look at layout, use of materials, ambiance, and compatibility with the home and surrounding garden."

Lamkins sees the outdoor realm as "a great growth area the niche that can afford the high-end kitchen tends to be entertainment-orientedI see this evolving enormously."

Down the Road
Both dealers and manufacturers agree that today's outdoor kitchen is only just the beginning. Notes Lamkins, "The outdoor kitchen of the future is going to be a full, well-rounded kitchen that will have all of the same appliance groupings that you would find in an interior kitchen. Dishwashers, refrigerators, small appliance capabilities, ventilation systems I see it being a mirror image of the interior kitchen. In fact, anything you see in the indoor kitchen, you're going to see in the outdoor kitchen."

He adds, "It's no longer [going to be just] a seasonal kitchen I see it as a year-round alternative kitchen, and that's the way our company is pursuing it. With the advent of these highly evolved kitchen systems that can actually bake, broil, etc., it's not just a grill anymore. That, coupled with warming ovens, outdoor ventilation and dishwashers make it a perfect environment [for cooking and entertaining]."

Persons sees the outdoor kitchen as an area that is already gaining interest with women as well as men, and he expects this to continue over time. "In the old days, the indoors was the woman's domain, and the outdoors was the man's. But the evolution of the outdoor kitchen is changing all that."

Eskew agrees: "Unlike indoor appliances where the woman [is generally the one] doing the research and making the [decisions], with a BBQ, the man may be the one getting all the information and bringing it back to the woman, and then they make the buying decision jointly."

Lamkins believes, "The evolution is definitely on its way. Remote programming is a very interesting long-range concept. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could get up in the morning and spread out your hamburgers on the grill because it's cold out, and then sometime during the day you call and the grill turns on and starts cooking, so you can come home to the smell of burgers hot off the grill?" KBDN