We look at the upcoming Labor Day weekend as summer's last hurrah, as 2011's final chance to gather the family, neighbors or friends in the back yard and grill up some brats, burgers or even steaks.
"That's one of the sad things about Labor Day. Everybody thinks of it as the end of grilling," says suburban chef Russ Faulk. "But for me, it's just a three-day weekend. I cook outside all year. I jokingly refer to my grill as my outside space heater."
Of course, Faulk's grill isn't just a grill. It's a Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet 900HS that retails for $15,895. On a recent summer day when suburbanites took advantage of the perfect weather to wash their cars, Faulk, 43, was in his Elmhurst driveway detailing his grill.
"My grill's worth more than my car," says Faulk, who is vice president of product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, a luxury manufacturer that caters to people who are serious about outdoor cooking.
Kalamazoo's single biggest seller is its outdoor stainless steel pizza oven that retails for $6,495. But the company is better known for its lineup of grills, starting with a gas version that sells for $7,495 and topping out with Faulk's hybrid grill that can cook with gas, wood or charcoal. Their newest product, set to ship this fall, is a weatherproof dishwasher with a price tag of $4,990.
In this climate of unemployment, cutbacks and penny-pinching, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet is doing just fine.
"It's kind of all relative," Faulk says. "The people with money still have money. We had a record sales year in 2010 and we're on pace for another record sales year this year."
Earlier this month, in a CNN Money story headlined "You paid what?!?" that featured high-end companies thriving in this bad economy, Kalamazoo's $6,495 pizza oven was featured. Headquartered in Chicago, the American company with more than two dozen employees makes its refrigerators in Milwaukee and its grills in Kalamazoo, Mich., and hand-builds each order. Faulk understands the shock and blunt observations from people who can't believe anyone would spend 5 grand on a dishwasher, let alone one for the patio.
"An outdoor dishwasher is a luxury. It's not a necessity," says Faulk, who acknowledges that his back yard doesn't even have a sink or a refrigerator and he must lug leftovers and dirty dishes back inside after a dinner cooked on his grill that costs more than a 2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS.
While appliances for a typical outdoor kitchen might run 30 grand, Faulk says more people are building bigger kitchens for their al fresco dining experiences. Faulk says he cooks outside all year round, in almost every type of weather.
"I positioned my grill so I can see the hood thermometer from my kitchen window," says Faulk, the author of several grill cookbooks and a gourmetpatio.com blog that features his recipes for dishes people often don't think of grilling, such as "Smoky Three-Cheese Macaroni," "Shrimp and Vegetable Lasagna" or "Brussels and Beans Salad."
People with money are the target audience, and the Kalamazoo website features testimonials from celebrity chefs such as Chicago's Rick Bayless. But Faulk says one delivery truck driver saved for years to buy a Kalamazoo grill.
"It's about how important these activities are for you," says Faulk, allowing that people certainly can cook outdoors without a $15,895 grill, $5,999 refrigerator drawers, a $5,790 warming cabinet, a $3,990 ventilation hood or a $4,990 dishwasher. "No good ever comes from doing the math."
But for those of us who do the math, for the price of one outside dishwasher, we could buy 169,210 plain paper plates.