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Barbecue/Grill Retailer Profile

Serving Up Barbecue at Backyard Bash

It makes perfect sense that Backyard Bash has been such a hit with barbecue lovers since it opened its doors three years ago. The barbecue/grill specialty store is located just outside of Kansas City, Mo., considered by many to be the barbecue capital of the world. Kansas City holds the largest barbecue competition in the United States (the American Royal Barbecue Contest), is home to over 100 barbecue restaurants—including world-famous Arthur Bryant—and is the birthplace of KC Masterpiece® barbecue sauce.

Jay Mathiesen, owner of Backyard Bash, was the perfect candidate to start such a business. Not only was he eager to leave his sales job in the railroad industry (which involved lots of travel), he had always been passionate about grilling and smoking. When his sons played high-school football, he was the team’s resident barbecue chef, responsible for grilling and smoking food for players and their families.

“Back then, it was extremely difficult to find a place that would rent a barbecue grill for a special event,” Mathiesen says. “This gave me the idea of starting a business that would offer both rentals and sales of smokers and grills.” Retail sales now represent the larger portion of Backyard Bash’s business, but there are many instances in which a rental leads to an eventual sale because of a customer’s satisfaction with a particular product. “Many times, a person rents a grill or smoker for a special event and then ends up buying one for the family,” Mathiesen says.

Backyard Bash offers trailer grills and smokers for rent and sale from Tucker Cookers, Austin National Smokers and Blue Ridge Mountain Cookery, as we well as top-of-the-line backyard models from leading manufacturers such as Fire Stone Home Products, Primo, Traeger, Weber and Hasty-Bake.

Unlike the Big Boxes

Since the big-box stores sell some of the same products as Backyard Bash, Mathiesen is frequently asked how he competes effectively with these retail giants. His short answer is that he doesn’t. Located in a strip mall in suburban Parkville, Mo., Backyard Bash is a destination store for barbecue aficionados. In addition to offering a variety of grills and smokers for sale and rent, the 1,300-square-foot store sells over a 100 different rubs and sauces not found in grocery stores, in addition to a wide range of barbecue accessories such as brushes, thermometers, cookware and cookbooks. “Our focus is carrying products that are unique, as well as providing education and excellent service,” Mathiesen says. “You can’t go into a big box and ask, ‘What’s the best way to cook pork butt?’”

Mathiesen also believes that there has been a backlash toward the big boxes in his area. Customers want to support local, independent retailers and they also demand service, which is not available at most large retail stores. “Many of these big boxes are even doing away with live checkers, so you’re totally left on your own when you go into these stores.”

Backyard Bash also differentiates itself by offering regular Saturday cooking classes. Recent classes have included “Beginning Barbecue 101: Chicken and Ribs” and “Barbecue 102: Briskets and Butts.” The courses are taught by Chris Marks, owner of Kansas City-based Three Little Pigs Barbecue and Catering. Marks is an eight-time winner of the American Royal Barbecue Contest and winner of over 40 barbecue competitions throughout the United States.

The classes, held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $75 per person, are hands-on demonstrations. Following the class, participants are able to sample everything from mouth-watering smoked chicken to a delicious slab of baby back ribs. In the months ahead, Mathiesen plans to design specific programs (such as classes on grilling vegetables and seafood) that will appeal to women. On those Saturdays when cooking classes aren’t offered, Mathiesen frequently smokes or grills a piece of meat. The tantalizing smell keeps customers in the store longer and attracts passersby who have never before been in the store.

Low-cost Advertising

When Mathiesen started Backyard Bash, he recognized the importance of advertising, even though it was a costly endeavor. In his first year of business, he hired an advertising agency that helped to create a Web site and place ads in the local media. It did not take long, however, to find low-cost ways to advertise. Mathiesen believes that one of his most cost-effective places to advertise has been the BBQ Forum, an Internet-based resource and message board for barbecue enthusiasts in Kansas City and nationwide. The Kansas City Barbecue Society’s BULLSHEET, a monthly publication filled with barbecue news from a network of local and national correspondents, is another promotional vehicle that has paid off well. “The BBQ Forum and BULLSHEET target people who are more likely to shop in my store,” he says.

Mathiesen believes that a Web site is extremely important for barbecue specialty stores. Backyard Bash’s Web site (www.backyardbashkc.com) not only is attractively designed and easy to navigate, but provides up-to-date information on classes and local barbecue events. Another promotional vehicle that has been effective is the store’s Constant Contact program. Constant Contact was designed using the store’s customer database in order to disseminate newsletters and announcements via email to customers about new products and services.

Looking back at the past three years, Mathiesen is pleased that he made a career switch to specialty retailing, but he advises those who are contemplating getting into the barbecue specialty retail industry to be sure to take advantage of appropriate resources. Mathiesen’s experience in sales has contributed to the success of the business, as has his wife’s experience as a corporate chief financial officer. “I also tell people that they have to be prepared to have a few nosebleed years, but after a while, if they take the right steps, their business should succeed,” he says.

When it succeeds, the rewards are enormous. Since Backyard Bash customers are passionate about barbecue and smoking, they come to the store excited about cooking techniques, as well as about new products that will improve the taste of their food. As Mathiesen points out, “All you have to do is get barbecuers talking about their cooking and you won’t be able to get them to shut up.”

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