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Consumers fork over big bucks for deluxe grills

June 20, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Americans aren’t just throwing charcoal in their grills anymore.

They’re buying big, deluxe cooking machines that virtually move a small kitchen into the back yard. With price tags in the thousands, grilling now means slicing, dicing, smoking, frying and even baking.

``The grill has become like a car in suburbia,″ said Paul Zamek, who helped his dad put together a new Ducane grill last weekend at their Westwood, N.J., home. ``You want the biggest and best.″

Summer starts Saturday, and that means homeowners nationwide are ready for the busiest time of the year for barbecuing. There were 2.7 billion barbecues in the United States last year.

About 84 percent of all families own at least one grill, up from 68 percent in 1987. Charcoal grills are still the most popular, but sales top gas grills by only a narrow margin.

``Living outdoors has become such a major activity today, with gardening, building decks, buying more outdoor furniture,″ said Donna Myers, spokeswoman for the Barbecue Industry Association in Naperville, Ill. ``People have made a major commitment to their back yard and now they want to cook in it.″

Five years ago, most grills sold for about $130 to $300, but now the average price runs between $300 to $700 and demand for higher-priced grills _ some running up to $3,500 _ is on the rise, Myers said.

That comes as many barbecuers look for more than just an iron grate with a flame below to make their steaks and burgers. They want to prepare, cook and sometimes even serve the entire meal from the grill.

Style is almost as important as function. Many manufacturers and retailers advertise stainless steel features and non-traditional colors such as hunter green, cherry red and burgundy.

Much of this growing demand for glitzy grills comes as a result of the strong U.S. economy, which has made shoppers more inclined to splurge on luxury goods than in years past.

``Baby boomers have a lot of money and they are the ones who are buying these grills,″ said Tom Darche, general manager at Masda Corp., a Whippany, N.J.-based distributor. ``It’s not really about cooking but about how it looks in the yard.″

Some of the top-selling expensive grills this year come from Dynamic Cooking Systems. Its cheapest model starts at $999 for a 24-inch barbecue with a rotisserie, while its priciest grill sells for $3,495, an all-inclusive grill including side and infrared burners.

Well-known brands like Weber and Ducane, which have long been the leaders in backyard barbecuing, also have upgraded their products, now adding nifty features and sleek designs to their standard lines.

Hammacher-Schlemmer offers the Weber Professional Model Stainless Steel Grill for $2,500, which includes side shelves, a slide-out bottom tray, six burners and for an additional $349, a side-mounted range-top burner.

``People are starting to take grilling very seriously. They want to cook year-round on a grill that’s going to last them more than a couple of years,″ said Bob Mansbart, a grill department supervisor at The Home Depot’s Home Expo store in Westbury, N.Y.

In fact, most buyers of these upscale grills already own one barbecue, but now want a unit with more innovations. According to the Barbecue Industry Association, 72 percent of grill buyers want a large cooking surface, and 51 percent of those buying gas grills look for side tables.

While these fancy grills make cooking easy, there is no guarantee those you feed will notice the difference between the $19 table-top grill and the $3,500 variety.

``The more expensive grills make cooking fun and easy, but it really doesn’t change the actual cooking,″ said Myers of the BIA. ``Chances are it tastes the same.″

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