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There’s been a disturbance in the outdoor cooking universe.
Backyard chefs — who at one time were devoted to charcoal briquettes or propane gas — are now burning for wood pellet grills. These smoker-grill-oven combinations cook everything from hefty beef briskets to airy loaves of bread with relative ease.
Since 2014, sales of wood pellet grills have grown from less than 1% percent of the backyard barbecue market to close to 20 percent, said Jeremy Andrus, President and CEO of Traeger Grills — the Salt Lake City company that ignited this culinary trend.
“It’s an innovation,” Andrus said. “Once you have cooked with one — or once you eat the food that comes off one — you know that the food simply tastes better.”
As the name suggests, these outdoor cookers are fueled by hardwood pellets. An electric auger feeds the pieces from the side hopper into the fire pot. The electronic temperature control keeps the desired heat level steady — much like a regular oven — while a fan circulates the heat and smoke for even, convection-like cooking.
In a relatively short time, the wood pellet grill has developed a cult-like following with hundreds of thousands of devotees joining social media groups to share tips and recipes and sing the praises of the black metal cooker that can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 depending on the bells and whistles you want to have.
While there are dozens of wood pellet brands on the market — from Pit Boss to Weber — Traeger is considered the premier offering, owning more than 50% of the global wood pellet grill market, said Andrus, a Salt Lake City resident and Brigham Young University graduate.
Andrus and a financial partner acquired the Traeger Grills in 2014. Since then they transformed the 26-year-old business from a small, regional company to a hundred-million-dollar brand that continues to expand.
In May, the company launched its “Welcome to the Traegerhood” television and radio commercials followed by a “Farm to Traeger” billboard near Interstate 80 in Tooele that featured live cows, sheep, chickens and pigs.
Traeger isn’t Andrus’ first business success story. He joined Skullcandy in 2005 when it had just four employees and had less than $1 million in sales. Under his leadership, the headphone and wearable electronic company, grew into a $300 million public company.
As we head into prime grilling season, The Salt Lake Tribune caught up with Andrus to talk about the company’s regional beginnings, it’s new headquarters in downtown Salt Lake City and how sometimes people think he works for Trader Joe’s.
His comments have been edited for space and clarity.
Why did you buy the company?
I went up to Oregon, which is the birthplace of the brand, and I had arranged a dozen consumer interviews. The first gentleman I interviewed — who incidentally, was a second generation Traeger owner — said ‘Traeger changed my life.’ I heard that statement, or words similar to that, hundreds of times. Traeger really does enable someone to cook these amazing things in their own backyard every day.
Are people surprised to learn it is headquartered in Utah?
Most people are surprised when they hear it. And most people think it’s a 5- or 6-year old startup. Really, it’s just blown up over the last five or six years. It was actually Joe Traeger who founded Traeger Grills back in 1987. It was a slow grower for decades, but it had this very faithful following in the Pacific Northwest. There wasn’t a marketing budget or advertising department, but the people that used the product evangelized to their neighbors. All someone would have to do is put a brisket or a pork shoulder on their grill and the next thing you know, the neighbors wandered over to see what they were smelling.
Wood pellet grills are popular across the country, have Utahns embraced the trend?
When we moved Traeger to Utah, we had very little household penetration. It was in the low single digits. Now it is closer to 15 percent — Utah is one of our highest and fastest growing states. That’s because we’ve invested to build the brand in our own backyard. One of my commitments to the team was that when they told people in Utah who they worked for, they wouldn’t have to keep spelling it. People asks us ‘Where do you work?’ Traeger. ‘Did you say Trader Joe’s?’ No Traeger T-R-A-E-G-E-R.’ We decided that we were going to not only build and test our marketing model here, but we were going to make the Utah community proud to be the incubation location for the brand.
Traeger will soon have a new building in downtown Salt Lake City. Where will it be located and what will it look like?
I wanted to find this beautiful old warehouse that was filled with history and charm and make it new — while preserving the heritage. So we’re going to the old Newspaper Agency Corp. building close to downtown, right off 500 South. Portions of the building are newer — but some of it is 100 years old and it’s got these beautiful high ceilings and it’s never been renovated since it was a newspaper printing facility. We’re going to uncover these beautiful ceilings that have old wood and have largely been covered with insulation. And we’re really going to restore the beauty of the building. It’s fitting because we are a brand that has a real heritage.
What size is the new building — compared to your current Sugar House location — and have the renovations started?
We’re going from just under 50,000-square feet to about 90,000. It’s a massive upgrade not only in experience but in size. It’s part of the Gale Street project that will be a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. We’ve done all of the design work and we’re in the process of applying for permits. We hope to be in by spring of next year. We’re going to build it so that the community can come visit us. There’s going to be areas open to the community to understand more about Traeger, to enjoy some great food and to see the great product merchandise.
In your opinion, what’s the main reason consumers are drawn to the wood pellet grill?
Traditionally, you pull your grill out of your garage on Memorial Day and put it back on Labor Day. But a pellet grill can be used year round. People use it as their outdoor oven. We’re the only grill that people buy around the (Thanksgiving and Christmas) holidays. You not only can cook the world’s best turkey, but the stuffing and the desert. You can bake bread in it.
Are the grills built in Utah?
All of the product innovation, the research and development are here in Utah. But we manufacture in Asia. Our wood pellets are byproduct of other manufacturing operations, like home construction, cabinetry flooring, things like that. We take that byproduct and we compress it.
There are dozens of Traeger fan groups on Facebook, one has nearly 160,000 members. Did you expect to develop such a cult-like following?
Sharing is such an important part of the community, supporting one another in a way that I think has become very meaningful. And it is cool to be scrolling social media and to see that energy, not just in the U.S., but in Canada and New Zealand and Australia. In Israel, Germany and the U.K. The community is smaller outside of the US, but it’s really growing. They are the best evangelists.