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Barbecue/Grill Retailer Profile

A Winning Business Niche in the Windy City

About nine years ago, while on vacation and visiting a friend in Las Vegas, Kevin Cunningham liked what he saw in his buddy’s backyard. “I was lying in his pool, looking at the mountains and his beautiful kitchen island. I thought, ‘This is nice; I like this,’” Cunningham says.

When he returned to his home in the Chicago area, Cunningham decided that he wanted an outdoor kitchen in his backyard. There was only one problem: he couldn’t find anyone to build one for him. “When I got back home, I called everybody who sold grills and told them what I wanted,” he says. “They all said the same thing: ‘We don’t do that.’”

It was then that Cunningham decided that designing, building and installing complete outdoor kitchens would be a great business niche. In 2000, Cunningham started Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens, based in Elburn, Ill.

Building outdoor kitchens fits perfectly with Cunningham’s background as a general contractor in the commercial and residential sector. “I had been in the construction business for 25 years, and I knew my way around everything from installing gas and electric to masonry work. I put everything together and became that turnkey company that people were looking for,” he says.

Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens has certainly filled the void, both in the Chicago area and beyond, by offering custom-built grill islands with options such as storage and accessory drawers, wet bars, refrigerators, beer dispensers and fiber-optic lighting. Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens is also the distributor in the surrounding six-state area for Oklahoma-based Stone Age Manufacturing, which makes prefabricated outdoor fireplaces, firepits and ovens (brick and pizza).

Cunningham will construct custom-built fireplaces and firepits, but explains that the prefabricated units are more cost effective for the customer, while still offering a high-quality masonry product that can be customized. “When we’re building a fireplace from the ground up, it becomes rather costly,” Cunningham says. “This system cuts the price in half.”  Often, a custom fireplace can cost $16,000 to $18,000, while a prefabricated unit will typically cost $7,500 to $10,000.

Cunningham first sits down with the homeowners and asks them many questions to help him determine exactly what kind of outdoor kitchen he should create. Since every outdoor kitchen is a custom design, Cunningham examines every nuance of a space, including traffic flow, the serving pattern for meals and whether the grill chef is right- or left-handed. He then produces a drawing using computer-aided design; using this, homeowners can make any desired changes.

Cunningham supervises every phase of construction, from securing permits through final installation. He builds the bases of his islands using only natural stone. Countertops are also made of various stone products, including granite, bluestone and limestone. He offers stainless-steel grills by Dacor, Twin Eagles and DCS.

Cunningham’s kitchens run a broad spectrum, from a basic 6-foot grill island to high-end projects, such as one undertaken for a homeowner who wanted something that had never been done before and that would match the stature of his 17,000-square-foot home.

The spectacular oasis that Cunningham created features two islands with two 52-inch Dacor grills (including double side burners), two warming drawers, two Marvel refrigerators, a beer dispenser, an ice maker, a wine grotto and two double sinks with Grohe faucets. There is also bar seating for 12. Fiber-optic lighting illuminates the entire area.

Cunningham says that the average sale for a basic island is approximately $10,000 (without accessories, which usually add another $4,000 to $8,000). From there, depending on what the homeowner desires, prices can reach $70,000 for a more elaborate project.
This custom fireplace is finished with decorative thin-stone veneer pieces to match the home’s exterior. Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens is also a distributor for prefabricated fireplaces from Stone Age Manufacturing.

Perhaps the most important element of Cunningham’s business is his strong belief in partnerships. From custom homebuilders and landscape designers to lighting and pool/spa contractors—as well as architects and outdoor patio and hearth retailers—Cunningham relies on the power and mutual benefit of all relationships. “I receive new business from them, and I send referrals their way, as well,” he says.

In addition to these business partnerships, Cunning­ham also participates in direct mailings to targeted higher-end residential areas. He will send three consecutive mailers one month apart, timing their arrival for the spring thaw, “when Midwest homeowners are able to concentrate on the outdoors,” he says.

While he currently has no brick-and-mortar space, Cunningham does have a showroom on his Web site (www.uokdesigns.com); it has well over 100 images of different outdoor kitchens and fireplaces that he has completed.

Eventually, he does see a traditional showroom in Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens’ future, complete with three or four kitchen vignettes built outside the retail space. “Visually, this will be huge, so people can envision what they can have in their backyards,” he says. For now, potential customers can see Cunningham’s kitchens both on his Web site and in a number of home-supply showrooms in the Chicago area. “It’s another great partnership,” he says.

Cunningham builds all his outdoor kitchens with the help of his wife, Laura, who handles administration, two construction teams in the field and a full-time warehouse/sales employee.

The future is expanding for Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens as Cunningham is set to unveil, in early 2008, a new ready-to-assemble outdoor grill island using an innovative new process. “This new system will enable an individual to assemble and stone an 8-foot island in two hours,” he says. In addition, this new island also allows for customization with various options, and can be shipped across the United States.

According to Cunningham, even as blustery winter weather sets in on the Midwest, his phones have been “ringing off the hook.” He says that the outdoor-kitchen concept has been very well received in his market area of Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. Undoubtedly, Cunningham’s success is due to the turnkey service and exceptional quality that he provides his customers in building their Ultimate Outdoor Kitchens.

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