Food Service & Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Small Business & Startups

Seasoned pros turn to grill manufacturing

Veteran helps design Grilla Grills wood pellet smoker/grill, making barbecuing more accessible.

October 6, 2017
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Mark Graham
Mark Graham, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, looked at wood pellet furnaces and thought the concept could be adapted for a grill and meat smoker. Courtesy Grilla Grills

If you ask Mark Graham what he’s doing with his life, he’ll tell you he’s living the American dream.

Now the vice president of sales and engineering for Grilla Grills, Graham started out in 2004 with Edmar Manufacturing as an engineer in the automotive stamping and steel fabrication division before the company added a grill product line in 2011.

Before that, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant from 1989-2000.

He said Edmar has evolved continually since the 1970s.

“First came Edmar Manufacturing (founded in 1975). A few years later (in the late ’80s), they spun off and created a construction division, which is now the largest part — EMI (Edmar Manufacturing Inc.). And then, we spun off that and created Fahrenheit Technologies (in 2007), its own entity, and underneath Fahrenheit was Grilla Grills (in 2011).”

A friend and neighbor since childhood with Edmar president Dave Shidler, Graham and his team started manufacturing pellet stoves under the Fahrenheit name during the economic downturn.

“Back in 2007 or 2008, people were using pellet furnaces to heat their home because fuel was so expensive,” Graham said. “Then I saw these pellet grills. I came back and talked with Dave, and we decided we wanted to build one, so the Grilla was the first one we built here.”

The Grilla ($799), which Graham designed with his team, is the company’s flagship product and is a wood pellet meat smoker and grill in one, with a round shape and an unusual lid construction (more on that later).

Grilla Grills has since released two other grills — the Silverbac ($699), more of a traditional-looking grill that also uses wood pellets for fuel, and the Kong ($799), a charcoal ceramic kamado grill that allows users to bake, roast, grill and smoke food, patterned after a Japanese design.

For four years after launching Grilla, the company produced the grill in its Holland metal stamping plant before deciding to outsource manufacturing.

“We were not able to compete with our import counterparts,” Graham said. “So, we started importing them. We still do a lot of the design, and we go over (to our suppliers in China) and source the product, as well.”

The family-owned business with 10 employees does not disclose revenues, but Graham said sales nearly tripled from September 2016 to September 2017.

Part of that is thanks to Graham and Marketing Coordinator Jenna Johnston’s aggressive social media marketing of the products through the Grilla Grills YouTube channel, which generates thousands of views per post, and the My Grilla Grill Smoker Facebook page, which has grown from 100 members in its first year to more than 6,700 today.

As a young company, Grilla Grills still is trying to strike the right inventory balance. The company sold out of product every month between January and August this year and is playing catch-up during the fall lull.

Because of challenges with order fulfillment, the company can only deliver in the U.S. at this time. But Graham said that doesn’t stop Canadians from ordering the grills.

“One guy shipped it to Montana. When he went back across the border into Canada, he got stopped by a border agent,” Graham said. “At first, he was giving him a hard time about the import, but the buyer said, ‘Thirty minutes later, I had him talked into buying one, too.’ He became our salesman.”

Grilla Grills sells all three grill models online, along with accessories, barbecue sauces and rubs, apparel, wood pellets, temperature gauges and more.

“We used to sell them through our dealer network we had set up for pellet services,” he said. “We found the dealers were marking them up 40 percent, which priced them out of the market. In 2016, when we opened our e-commerce store, we got rid of dealers. It took the grill from around $1,500 to now it’s $799, delivered right to your door.

“You can also pick them up in person from the Grilla Grills warehouse (at 558 E. 64th St. in Holland),” he said. “We do offer a walk-in special. Since our normal price that’s online includes free shipping, if someone comes in and picks up a grill, they get $75 of free accessories because we’re off-setting shipping costs.”

Graham said a couple of features make the grills unusual.

“The pellet grills, in general, are a different way of cooking for the general public because you’re cooking with wood,” he said. “It smokes food for 10 to 12 hours or cooks hamburgers on the grill. It’s something you can’t generally do with a grill.

“You push a button, set your temperature, and it does the rest. It helps the public get into smoking food with a much easier learning curve.”

He said the Grilla Grill has a hopper that holds the wood pellets, and a computer sensor tells the grill when to feed more fuel to the fire to maintain whatever temperature the user sets, and it takes about eight minutes to reach the optimum temperature.

The automation makes it more hands-off for grillers, adding an element of accessibility for entry-level users.

The Grilla Grill wood pellet smoker/grill model also was launched with and continues to incorporate a lid design that unintentionally makes the product accessible to those with disabilities, Graham said.

“(The Grilla Grill is) the typical height of a grill, which is 32 inches. But you don’t have to lift the lid up. The way the lid opens, it slides side to side, right to left.

“One guy from Kalamazoo came rolling out of his van in a wheelchair one day. He was looking at the other grills, and he couldn’t reach them. But he could with the Grilla Grill. Wheelchair accessibility wasn’t something we planned on, but it really was interesting,” Graham said, noting it could help his fellow veterans.

“I’ve never put myself in those shoes, but it’s really a challenge to barbecue if you’re in a wheelchair.”

Johnston said the company is looking into adding that as a marketing angle.

“It’s something we think would be a good idea to pursue, but we are still looking into whether there are regulations where you have to be certified to say it’s disability approved,” she said.

Right now, Graham said the company is sinking its energy into preparing for Black Friday in November when they expect to see a sales jump.

“I think we’re pretty much convinced 2018 is going to be ridiculous,” he said. “We are excited about the family-owned and diversified business we have created here, and we look forward to more local sales and helping people enjoy barbecue even more.”

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