Barbecue/Grill Retailer Profile

Persistence Pays Off

Mississippi-based Grate Grills & More has faced myriad challenges in its short seven-year history. Its early struggles were typical for a startup specialty retailer: standing up to the big-box stores and making a name for itself. In the past couple of years, the business has suffered due to the effects of the recession.

These setbacks pale, however, in comparison with what Grate Grills & More experienced in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck.

The 2,000–square-foot store (located in Biloxi at that time) suffered heavy damage, and there was no electricity or water for weeks. To make matters worse, the retailer’s entire inventory in a nearby warehouse was destroyed, and store deliveries were prohibited for a month, since Grate Grills & More wasn’t directly related to the community’s relief efforts.

“After Katrina, we had two choices: Roll over and play dead or put our boots on and start working,” George Rogers, founder and co-owner of Grate Grills & More, recalls. Rogers, an Air Force veteran, and his brother, Mike, a retired physical therapist, decided that the best option was not only to rebuild the business, but to expand it as well. Within two months after Katrina, Grate Grills & More reopened in its current location in Gulfport, about two miles from its original spot.

The Rogers brothers chose to move the business into a larger building that offered five times more square feet than its previous location had. The additional space was needed to display the store’s new gourmet section, which includes cookware; cutlery; wood chips; and food items such as rubs, spices, and sauces. Fireplaces and patio furniture were also added to the product mix.

Although 60% of Grate Grills & More’s retail business comes from barbecue equipment, the remaining 40% comes from the other offerings, which play an important role in promoting repeat business. The plan to diversify definitely paid off well. “We expanded into these areas for survival because we realized that if we weren’t selling barbecue equipment in the colder months, we could sell fireplaces and hearth accessories,” Rogers says.

Ironically, Katrina played a huge role in the rebirth of Grate Grills & More, as many residents of the region who had experienced losses from the hurricane started replacing grills that had been destroyed. “People were in recovery mode, and when their insurance checks started arriving, they began spending money on things they lost,” Rogers explains.

At the same time, a cult-like following was developing for the Big Green Egg. Grate Grills & More had been selling the Big Green Egg prior to Katrina, but once Rogers moved into his expanded store, he recognized the importance of becoming a one-stop shop for Eggheads; he included the Big Green Egg’s full line of ceramic cookers, as well as its accessories. To this day, the Big Green Egg is the store’s biggest seller, even though Grate Grills & More carries products from a variety of grill heavyweights, including Weber, Lynx, Fire Magic, Viking, Broilmaster, Bull Outdoor Products, and Broil King.

As the Rogers brothers began conducting outdoor-cooking demonstrations on Eggs, many customers suggested that they open a restaurant, since the samples of their grilled meats were so tasty. Then, in the summer of 2006, after reading “Running a Restaurant for Dummies” (John Wiley & Sons, 2004), Mike Rogers told his brother that they should open a restaurant in the space adjacent to their retail store.

“I thought he had lost his mind, as neither of us had a food-service background,” Rogers recalls. He soon realized, however, that his brother’s passion for barbecue would be the key to the restaurant’s success. “Mike immersed himself into learning all he could about owning a restaurant, and he created a terrific menu with signature dishes,” Rogers says.

The restaurant’s cuisine became known as grillmet, a fusion of grill and gourmet. Two of the more popular dishes are the quesadilla de Miguel (made of barbecued beef brisket, marinated artichoke heart, red bell pepper, onion, and pepper jack cheese) and the pulled-pork sandwich, which is smoked with a pecan flavor. Other menu items include fillets, steaks, pork chops, ribs, fire-roasted shrimp, mahi-mahi, and ahi tuna.

Four Big Green Eggs (two extra large and two large) are used in the restaurant to prepare the majority of meats. Special vents were added in the kitchen to accommodate the Eggs. Business at the restaurant took off quickly, and in no time, it became apparent that the kitchen needed additional grills.

As a result, the Rogers brothers created an EggMobile with a 26-foot axle trailer and an air-conditioned prep/work area; it will eventually hold four Eggs. This mobile unit has already been used for catering and fundraising events. Partnering with a local hospital, Grate Grills & More recently helped raise money for free mammograms for low-income women during breast-cancer awareness month. The EggMobile was used to serve meals during this fundraising event.

An added benefit of the EggMobile is that when it’s used outside the store, the smoke and aroma emanating from the grills attract customers to both the restaurant and the retail store. “Opening and managing a restaurant is overwhelming, but there’s no doubt that it helps support a retail operation,” Rogers explains. “If customers are waiting for a table, they’ll wander into the store, and if they’re in the store, they’ll notice the aroma next door and stop in for something to eat.”

The store’s cooking classes, offered twice a month, have also been an excellent source of business. Since Mike has 30 years of teaching experience, he is the primary teacher. Mike uses a PowerPoint® presentation to show the class details about the evening’s menu, particularly shopping tips and a demonstration of how to prepare and cook the food.

Since the Rogers brothers are known locally as barbecue experts, it’s not uncommon for customers to call with questions while they’re in the middle of grilling. “We’re here for advice, whether it involves suggesting which cuts to buy or how something should be cooked,” Rogers says.

Due to their expertise, the Rogers brothers occasionally appear on Gulfport and Biloxi radio and television stations. For instance, last Memorial Day, George grilled during the weather segment of a local television program. In addition to these free spots, Grate Grills & More pays for television, radio, and magazine advertising.

Rogers is quick to point out, however, that word of mouth is the most effective way to reach customers, even though it’s also the slowest method. The Rogers brothers also publish a monthly newsletter (with recipes and barbecue tips) that serves as a promotional tool, along with the company’s Web site.

To promote fellowship and camaraderie among Eggheads, Grate Grills & More sponsors a Green Egg Club, and the 75-member group meets monthly at the store. Next April, Grate Grills & More will be hosting the first annual Gulf Coast Egg Fest, a special event for Egg fanatics living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast area.

Customers will be able to purchase Eggs in advance, and then members of the Egg Club will cook on them. At the end of the day, the customers will take their Eggs home and will be fully prepared to cook similar meals for their families. “The event is designed to provide information and education, and the proceeds raised will go to the Gulfport Police Department’s athletic league,” Rogers says.

With eight employees in the retail store and 20 in the restaurant, Grate Grills & More has grown significantly since its humble beginnings prior to Katrina. Although the business has had its share of challenges over the years, now that it’s well established, the Rogers brothers are optimistic about the future. They also continue to be passionate about what they do. “Knowing that we give our customers great service and stand behind the products we carry is very gratifying,” Rogers says. “It’s also a lot of fun being known as barbecue experts.”


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