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Picnicking to Suit Any Style : Whether the Outing Calls for China or Paper Plates, a Gas Grill or Charcoal Briquettes, Suppliers Are Set for Summer

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

John Duncan gestured toward an artfully arranged display of imported English picnic baskets at the Marjorie Duncan & Associates wholesale showroom in the L.A. Mart. They are, he pointed out, the real thing: made of sturdy wicker, lined with linen and filled with country-styled crockery, vacuum bottles and everything else a party of six might need.

Those hampers, made by Brexton and found in such upscale retailers as Geary’s of Beverly Hills, run about $400, Duncan said. More elaborate outfittings, featuring fine china, crystal and silver, can quickly send the price into the thousands of dollars. Such customized hampers hardly cater to a mass market, he observed, but “you only have to sell one.”

Although most California picnickers get by much more modestly, the Brextons find a steady market among those who enjoy the tradition of hauling what amounts to catered dinners to such venues as the Hollywood Bowl, whose season of picnics under the stars preceding concerts begins, incidentally, with a “preview” this evening. (Among caterers providing meals for these patrons: Tarzana-based Someone’s in the Kitchen, offering a “Hollywood Bowl Feast” for four at $35 a person; Los Angeles’ Along Came Mary, and Rococo Custom Caterers in Van Nuys.)

But baskets are only the beginning when it comes to the picnic business.

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The Barbecue Industry Assn., a trade group based in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Ill., expects spending on picnic items to top $6 billion in 1989 for the second straight year. And that doesn’t count the purchase of a hamper (or the occasional use of a caterer).

Food and grocery items will account for nearly $5 billion, barbecue grills $565 million, charcoal briquettes $434 million and lighters $145 million. Consumers will spend another $125 million on such gear as cooking tools and equipment--not to mention such oddments as mitts, aprons and chef’s toques .

Gas More Convenient

Grills fueled by charcoal briquettes, introduced more than 40 years ago, remain the nation’s favorite in sales, accounting for 9.1 million of the 13.1 million grills sold last year. But gas-fired grills--with sales of 3.85 million units--have significantly closed the gap in this convenience-oriented decade. Electric grills are a distant third with 135,000 units.

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“We’ve been seeing the gradual growth and development of the gas grill over about the last decade,” said Arthur W. Seeds, president of the Barbecue Industry Assn. “Most people like the charcoal grill because of the flavor, but the gas grill is winning favor among consumers who consider it more convenient in terms of lighting and cleanup.”

Speed and ease are important qualities to Baby Boomers, who now account for most of the population between the ages of 25 and 45, prime child-raising years. Because of the pressure of heavy work schedules in this age group, Seeds said, “they’re looking for convenience.” (Convenience also explains the fact that 14% of all charcoal sold last year was packed presoaked in lighter fluid and contained in self-lighting packages.)

But tastes, too, are changing.

More consumers are adding flavor agents. These include varieties of wood chips--mostly mesquite, hickory, oak and fruitwood. A Northern California entrepreneur offers “Winesmoke,” described as “a blend of California’s finest grape cuttings” (though the label says nothing of which cuttings might best accompany fish, fowl or flank steak). And S.A.M. Sales, another wholesaler represented at the L.A. Mart, offers a charcoal-fired “water smoker"--a metal cylinder fitted with a fire pit at the bottom that is topped successively by a water container (into which flavoring agents are added) and racks for the foods to be smoked.

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Seeds credited an extinct Burbank firm, Big Boy Grills, with pioneering development of deluxe grills. The more elaborate rigs are popular with serious patio chefs and professional caterers alike, he said, because they offer not only speed and easy cleanup but also stove-style burners beside the fire pit where the rest of a meal can be prepared. Such other amenities as windows in the hood for closer observation of smoking can boost prices to $300 to $600 and more. While these command only a small share of the total market nationally, he said, they are becoming a notable segment in Southern California, where outdoor cooking takes place all year.

Use Lava Rocks

“Grills are still very good buys,” Seeds said, “and the market is very competitive.” Thirty-nine manufacturers produced grills last year (a dozen specializing in gas, 13 in charcoal, the rest producing both). A Cleveland firm offers a bare-bones brazier at about $2, he said, and Weber’s round “Smokey Joe” retails for less than $25. (Weber’s mainstay, featuring a grill 22 inches across, costs about $70.)

The big market for gas grills is in models costing from $150 to $200, Seeds said, but small units can be found for about $50. Gas grills heat reusable lava rocks, or some other radiating substance, so there is rapid and steady heat and no live coals to be disposed of later.

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So far, he said, gas grills are found most frequently in the Northeast. Californians seem to prefer charcoal barbecuing--especially the new, easy-lighting varieties. And some time-pressed chefs in the Midwest are experimenting with use of microwave ovens to precook whole fowl and large roasts to be finished over charcoal just before eating.

Regional differences are apparent in menu selection, as well. Cooks in the South and Southwest, for example, favor more highly spiced sauces and smoke flavorings, and they usually grill the plentiful and inexpensive chickens that the region produces, according to a consumer survey conducted for the Barbecue Industry Assn. Northeasterners, on the other hand, want their cooking “straight,” Californians are experimenters, and coastal residents, not surprisingly, grill more fish than do other regional chefs, with salmon particularly favored in the Pacific Northwest. Beef, pork and sausages are popular fare in the Midwest.

Overall, beef remains the leading picnic menu staple, Seeds said, though the national trend toward eating lighter and whiter (in terms of meat) is beginning to show up in outdoor cooking as well.

“People are looking for ways to cut calories,” he said, “and we try to sell them on doing that by cooking on the grill because the fat will drip out of the food. And people are cooking leaner cuts.”

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