Evolution BBQ
Barbecues and Grills: What's Cookin' in Your Backyard?
By Howard T. Brody

Next to baseball, hot dogs, apple pies and automobiles, nothing quite says “America” like a good, old-fashioned cookout. And unless you live in a climate where cookouts occur year-round, this is the time of year when you fire up the grill and invite all your family and friends over for a backyard BBQ. 

Now, before we get into a technical debate, there are some things we should keep in mind and put on the picnic table to avoid any confusion. First, despite the variations of how the word is spelled, barbecue (or is it Bar-B-Que?) is both a cooking method and a device. So, for this discussion, we are going to concentrate on the apparatus as opposed to the cuisine.

To further confuse things, most people grill, they don’t barbecue. Barbecuing is done slowly over low, indirect heat where the food is flavored by a smoking process, while grilling, which is what most Americans do – and often refer to their grills as barbecues, or barbies— as in “put another shrimp on the barbie!” – is generally done quickly over moderate-to-high direct heat that hardly produces smoke at all (unless you’re burning something).

However, the two terminologies have been so interwoven over the years that when you are either hosting or going to a cookout, your food is most likely being grilled as opposed to being barbecued.

Grilling has existed in the Americas since even before the first settlers on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. The Arawaks (a group of indigenous people from South America and historically from the Caribbean) roasted meat on a wooden structure that the Spanish called a barbacoa. For centuries, the term referred to the wooden structure and not the act of grilling, but through the course of time the word morphed into “barbecue.” The term was also used to describe pit-style cooking techniques.

While barbecues were originally used to slow-cook hogs, different ways of preparing food developed and led to the regional variations we see today across the U.S. such as Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and St. Louis-style BBQ, among others. Over time, other foods were cooked similarly, with hamburgers and hot dogs being fairly recent additions, and primarily cooked on a grill.

Now it’s hard to believe, but before 1952, if you were to have a cookout, your food was not prepared on the type of grill that has been woven into the American fabric.

After World War II, the “chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” America that Herbert Hoover once promised during the ‘20s seemed to be coming to fruition as people migrated from the cities to the suburbs and outdoor entertaining became a part of life. Free-standing metal braziers (containers for hot coals) started replacing traditional barbecue pits as the focus shifted from slow-cooked techniques to grilling. On the weekends it was not unusual to see smoke climbing over your neighbor’s fence.

In 1952, George Stephen Sr. was working in a metal fabrication shop for Weber Brothers Metal Works in Chicago, welding steel spheres together to make marine buoys, when he came up with an idea for a better grill: a dome-shaped design. Stephen was tired of the wind blowing ash onto his food when he grilled, so he took the lower half of a buoy, welded three steel legs onto it, and fabricated a shallower hemisphere to use as a lid. He took his creation home and following some initial success, started the Weber-Stephen Products company, which to this day makes outdoor grills and related accessories. His invention, the “kettle barbecue,” intended to protect food from the elements, ignited a backyard revolution.

Right around the same time, Don McGlaughlin, owner of the Chicago Combustion Corporation, (the company who manufactured the successful gas fired Broilburger) was inventing the outdoor gas grill, better known today as the LazyMan. Up to that point, gas grills were only found in commercial cooking. Not long after the LazyMan was introduced, two other companies – Charmglo and Falcon – released competing portable grills. These portable gas fired grills featured state-of-the-art burners. The burners were built off the burner technology that had already been established by the Chicago Combustion Corporation. Other early gas grill designs included electric rotisseries, porcelain on steel fire boxes, and lava rocks to emulate the flavor of charcoal. For the LazyMan, McGlaughlin’s grandson needed a fuel source for the new portable grill and the iconic propane tank that is now associated with today’s grilling industry was sourced from 20-pound propane cylinders that were used exclusively by the plumbing industry. In 1959 you could purchase the portable LazyMan (Model AP) for $131.25 ($1,178 in today’s money).

We’ve come a long way in more than 60 years of grilling.

Today there are hundreds of companies around the world that manufacture and sell grills of all types – charcoal, propane, natural gas, electric and even infrared. Which type is the best is a personal choice. Always has been and always will. Cooking hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks on an outdoor grill is such an ingrained part of Americana, and the grill is such an established feature of homeownership, that three out of four U.S. adults own a grill or smoker.

However, grill sales in the U.S. have only grown by low single-digit percentages each year over the past 10 years, and according to the research firm IBISWorld, the home grilling market is about 20% smaller than it was a decade ago. With grill sales closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing market, it’s no surprise that the domestic grill industry suffered a setback between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession occurred. The industry has been gradually recovering since that time in sync with the economy’s rebound. U.S. grill sales rose to $1.47 billion last year from $1.21 billion in 2009, according to IBISWorld. That’s still well below the $1.78 billion in sales the industry did in 2006. As if the industry didn’t have enough to deal with, in addition to the slow rebound, U.S. grill manufacturers are now facing tougher competition from imports. Foreign manufacturers now account for 56% of all U.S. grill sales. That’s up from 46% a decade agos.

While most companies will be taking the fight to their foreign competition online and in stores, relying on consumer ratings and customer feedback, one company seems to be taking aim at overseas manufacturers both literally and figuratively.

If battles were won based solely on advertising campaigns, Kid Rock’s American Badass Grill (available in charcoal and gas), with the slogan “Made in the USA – by American workers for American workers,” wins the war hands down. 

In March, just a week after announcing his new portable grill, Rock literally began blowing away his competition with a video that quickly went viral. 

At the top of the video, a female friend of Rock’s asks, “You know what’s American? Catapulting foreign-made grills through the sky and shooting them down because they stink. If it’s not made in America like the Kid Rock American Badass Grill, you don’t want it.”

With that, the woman deploys a nearby catapult, which launches a Chinese-made BBQ grill into the air. Rock, positioned nearby holding a shotgun, sets the foreign grill in his sights. 

“This is what we think of ‘Made in China,’” he says as he begins firing at the grill. “Woo! In your face, China!” he says after blowing away the grill.

Unfortunately, despite what you may read elsewhere, trade wars aren’t won on websites or through social media posts. However, American companies are still holding their own.

According to IBISWorld, the leading U.S. grill supplier remains Weber-Stephen as they hold 30.3% of the market by dollar sales. Weber has been growing faster than the overall market in recent years, helped by its brand recognition, product reputation, the improved economy and higher exports. While the company is privately held and doesn’t disclose financial data, IBISWorld estimates that Weber-Stephen’s global grill sales have grown by 10% a year for the last five years, to about $235 million as of 2015.

Next is Middleby Corp., an Elgin, IL company that has a 16.6% share with brands that include Viking and MagiKitch’n. In December 2015, Middleby purchased Downey, CA-based Lynx Grills Inc., a maker of high-end outdoor grills that sell some crazy, off-the-hook models, including a voice-activated one that costs more than $8,000.

The best-selling imported outdoor grill includes the Char-Broil models made in China by 131-year-old W.C. Bradley Co., a privately held company based in Columbus, GA. Bradley moved their production from Georgia to China eleven years ago. At the time, they said that production costs were 25% lower in the People’s Republic of China and that the company made the move to remain competitive in what they called a dramatically changing marketplace.

In a survey compiled last summer by the industry trade group Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, 37% of U.S. adults intended to buy a new smoker or grill with 56% of those sales accounting for replacements. The good news is, according to the survey, buyers aged 18 to 34— millennials — are just as hooked on outdoor grilling as the 35-plus crowd. Not only are they carrying on the grilling traditions of their parents, but they are partially influenced by watching TV shows like BBQ Pitmasters on the Learning Channel and Grill It! with Bobby Flay on the Food Network.

One of the industry’s biggest changes that have been helping domestic grill manufacturers is the ability to adapt to the consumer’s desire to grill a wider variety of foods. So, to meet that need, companies have offered more accessories for outdoor grills beyond the staples like rotisseries, tongs, spatulas, hand mitts and cleaning brushes. Among the more popular grill add-ons are woks, fish and broiling baskets and pizza stones.

When it comes to the heated battle between gas grills and charcoal grills, it seems Americans prefer gas (both natural and liquid propane). While some might argue that gas is simply more convenient than charcoal because of the cleanup and disposal of afterward, gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1% with the remaining 2.2% of the grills being electric.

So, while the numbers paint the picture of the industry across the board, there is one debate that will still rage on long after you decide which grill (or barbecue) to buy: How would you like your steak cooked? Rare, medium or well done?

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