Shopping for a new barbecue pit used to mean a visit to a big box or specialty grill store, but a home grown Louisiana company is redefining how consumers buy outdoor cooking products. Baton Rouge-based BBQGuys, an online barbecue and outdoor kitchen equipment store, saw $127 million in sales last year and another $40 million from its manufacturing subsidiary, Blaze Outdoor Products, which makes specialty grills. The company is poised for significant growth, says founder Mike Hackley, thanks to a business model that features high touch customer service, a comprehensive video learning center for shoppers and a relentless data-driven eye on market trends.
“With our focus on everything related to barbecue, from products to accessories to sauces and more, we think we can become a billion or multi-billion-dollar company,” Hackley says.
Hackley, an Air Force veteran, inventor and serial entrepreneur, started the company in 1998, but his interest in grills and outdoor kitchens took root years earlier while he was serving in aircraft maintenance at Barksdale Airforce Base in Bossier City, Louisiana. Hackley brought his talents to a sideline job with his father-in-law’s outdoor kitchen and grill business. Years later, Hackley dove into the grill business himself full-time, opening The Grill Store and More in Baton Rouge, a college town known for its tailgate and outdoor cooking culture.
Through careful study and data collection, Hackley found internet sales to be a robust and growing part of the business, and later rebranded The Grill Store and More as Shoppers Choice, an expansive online retailer offering indoor and outdoor kitchen products. Business skyrocketed, and Hackley and his team spent the next several years filling orders for a wide variety of products. Then in January 2019, Hackley rebranded again, narrowing offerings to grills and outdoor kitchen equipment and converting the name to BBQGuys.
The business has been lauded for its workplace culture. A staff of nearly 200 tackles every aspect of operations, from new product development to national sales, and from customer service to marketing and communications. Staff members get together regularly, earn competitive salaries and generous benefits packages and are given plenty of access to personal and professional development opportunities.
About 4% of BBQGuys’ sales are from in-store transactions at the 150,000 square foot facility in Baton Rouge. The rest are from nationwide internet sales. And while it might seem unconventional to sell something as large as a grill online, BBQGuys makes sure customers have what they need through a comprehensive customer service department where human beings answer the phone. All new employees are educated for six to nine weeks on products at the Baton Rouge facility, which doubles as a training center.
“You can’t give support about something you’ve never seen or used,” says Hackley. “Our customer service team has a chance to cook on all the brands so that when a customer calls they know exactly what they’re talking about. I believe if you give a customer great service, they’ll be with you for life.”
To reach every type of buyer, BBQGuys sells a wide variety of grill brands including its own line of high end Blaze Outdoor Products grills, which Hackley developed with his own proprietary technology. Over the years, he has secured several patents for grill components that he says deliver improved performance and durability, with more inventions underway. BBQGuys’ product development arm is also in the midst of developing a second grill line with a lower price point, says Hackley.
The website’s many videos, filmed in two onsite studios, include all sorts of tutorials on grill assembly and cleaning, cooking tips and recipes for a wide variety of grilled fare. Company chefs Randy Watson and Tony Matassa each bring years of restaurant experience and serve as on air talent.
Another big component of the business is outdoor kitchen design. Sales in this division took off this year thanks to a push to network with contracting professionals nationwide. BBQGuys has forged relationships with 2,700 contractors, to whom it can offer not just a full complement of outdoor kitchen products, but also 3-D outdoor kitchen designs they can sell to their customers. This new division increased sales about 12-fold in 2019.
“Outdoor kitchen design is an area we’re very comfortable working in,” says Hackley, “and it takes the burden off the contractor.”
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