While Americans eat a lot less meat than they used to, the summer tradition of slapping steaks or burgers on the backyard grill and eating outside is as strong as ever.
Buoyed by a strong economy, consumers are shelling out an average of $140 for a grill, some with gadgets such as beer holders and woks, and as much as $7,500 for those from Dynamic Cooking Systems Inc. in Los Alamitos, which makes restaurant-quality outdoor cookers. Higher price tags this year could mean record sales for the $1-billion grill business.
Per capita beef consumption is down 16% since 1985, yet 190 million Americans grilled 30,000 tons of beef on Memorial Day. That's 11% more than in 1996 and probably the most ever, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. said.
"I barbecue just about every night," said Joe Reynoso, a Chicago futures trader, who bought a $500 Weber grill. "Sure, I paid some extra for the grill, but I love the taste and being outdoors."
The sales surge began weeks ago as consumers rushed to buy fancier or more expensive grills.
"We are already having a phenomenal season," said Greg Huber, the chief buyer of barbecue grills for Sears, Roebuck & Co., the No. 2 retailer behind Wal-Mart. Low-priced $99 grills aren't as popular as the $150 models, he said, and the fastest-growing segment is those selling for $379 and up.
With men making up two-thirds of barbecue chefs, much of the push to buy more expensive grills comes because "men like gadgets," said Cynthia Vahlkamp of the Sunbeam Corp.
The best-selling grill sold by Weber-Stephen Products Co., maker of Weber barbecues, fetches about $499, complete with wood cutting board, gas canister and a design intended to enhance flavor by recycling smoke through the meat. That model is three times the cost of Weber's $140 grill.