It’s June in Calgary. Spring (however short its existence) is gradually blooming into summer, ushering in the highly-anticipated season of long, hot days spent out doors with family and friends. While this June may be unlike any before – the typically social, away-from-home pursuits not possible – small and simple pleasures may nevertheless be found at home, outside. Behold the summer barbecue.
Long a staple of backyards across this city and beyond, the barbecue is as much a part of Calgary summer as Stampede and summer vacation. Unlike the latter two enjoyments, the barbecue is still on this year!
Ross Mikkelsen, owner of Barbecues Galore, is grateful for the saving grace. More life-preserver than life-boat, to be sure, for his 41-year-old Calgary-based business, this fortunate circumstance is recognized and appreciated by Mikkelsen.
“People still want to enjoy their backyards,” he says optimistically from his office at the Barbecues Galore retail store on Edmonton Trail, one of two shops in Calgary. The company has three more stores in Burlington, Oakville and Etobicoke, Ontario. “We’re home-adjacent and we’re food adjacent, and that’s a blessing right now. The negative is that the doors are closed, and running a traditional retail business with the doors closed takes all day, every day.”
A seasonal business with the bulk of sales from April to August, the adjustment to social-distancing measures has coincided with the yearly uptick in business, and has Mikkelsen and his team running. “Nothing makes you adapt quicker than a good old-fashioned pandemic,” he reflects. “This is like nothing we’ve ever experienced and it’s been an interesting pivot. You spend 40 years building showrooms with all your little systems of retail and then overnight the doors are locked. We’re learning how to do business in a different way, on the fly.”
Curbside pickup has quickly become modus operandi for businesses across the city, and Barbecues Galore is well into the game. With a comprehensive delivery service – the Barbecue Butler service which includes delivery, assembly, hook up, testing, instructions and recycling of old barbecues – many years running, Mikkelsen and his team have readily adapted to the new norm.
“Customers can phone in, get ahold of us by chat or email, or make an order on our website, and we’ll bring it to their curb, to their front door, or provide our entire Barbecue Butler service at their home,” Mikkelsen explains. “Basically business as usual – other than that customers can’t come into the store and take it home themselves!”
Barbecues Galore specializes in high-quality products to meet the needs of every carnivore and herbivore. Whether you like your food grilled, smoked, seared, charred, baked or slow-roasted on the rotisserie, its selection of gas, charcoal and pellet grills and smokers, along with a plethora of fun accessories to go with them, will fit the bill.
While gas grills have traditionally been most popular, charcoal and pellet varieties have been gaining interest. “Cooking with charcoal or pellet is a different experience, and people are really gravitating toward that,” Mikkelsen opines. “It’s pretty romantic and fun, very family-based. That’s our fastest growing category in the business.” All leading brands are stocked, with approximately 70 per cent of barbecues made in Canada (for example, Broil King and Napoleon are both made in Southern Ontario), a source of pride for Mikkelsen.
In addition to grills, Barbecues Galore carries a broad range of backyard products such as outdoor kitchens, patio furniture, patio heaters, coolers, outdoor lighting, outdoor fireplaces and heating tables. “Backyard is about 70 per cent of what we do,” Mikkelsen says. “We deliver it all to our customers’ home. We show up and there’s nothing on their deck, and by the time we leave the furniture’s set up, they have a fire table, a patio heater and a barbecue. It’s instant summer.”
On price, Barbecues Galore is committed to being the lowest as articulated in its Price Match policy – it will match any Canadian advertised price on any identical product up to 14 days after purchase so long as the store being matched has the identical model in stock. “Our biggest marketing challenge has always been that people assume that because we know what we’re talking about we must be expensive,” Mikkelsen laments. “That’s just not the case. We’re always looking at our competitors’ prices to make sure we’re the same or better, and if somebody sees a better price we react really quickly.”
Started in 1979 by Mikkelsen’s father, Mike Mikkelsen, the business was born out of a mix of chance and guts: a commercial warehouse tenant of senior Mikkelsen was looking for a partner in his wholesale barbecue business. Mikkelsen senior took the opportunity. “The partner didn’t last, but the business did,” Mikkelsen chuckles.
The business soon expanded into a small retail operation, which was franchised for a number of years. By the late 1980s it was consolidated into a single retail shop in north east Calgary, while the wholesale business continued.
In 1991 the young Mikkelsen, recently graduated from the University of Calgary with a business degree and content with a job in the restaurant industry, was asked by his father to come help with some invoicing. “I said ‘sure’ and I’ve been here ever since,” he reflects. “I don’t think my dad was intentionally trying to get out of the business and get me in, but that’s effectively how it worked.”
A second retail store was opened in south Calgary in 1993. In 1996, the opportunity to purchase Calgary-based Woods Fireplaces (a long-standing family business specializing in indoor gas and electric fireplaces) arose.
“We bought it thinking it would be nice to have something to do in the winter,” Mikkelsen reminisces. “Then we found ourselves having to work in the winter, so be careful what you wish for! It isn’t our core business exactly, but it’s really what has allowed us to keep our people employed year round.”
Seventeen years ago another opportunity arose, this time in Ontario when a retail customer of the wholesale business was looking to sell its barbecue retail business. Mikkelsen took the chance and purchased the two stores. “We sent our guy Paul Johnson out there and he’s been there ever since, running that part of the company,” Mikkelsen says. In 2017, a third retail store was opened in the GTA.
Today, approximately half of Barbecues Galore’s revenue comes from Ontario. “It’s a more competitive market out there,” he explains, “the market’s bigger, there are more people. They’re doing well.”
In Calgary, the company’s longer history has garnered a larger, more loyal customer base. “We’ve got a 41-year history, and probably 25 lives in our database, so we see people all the time who have purchased from us in the past,” he says, noting the typical barbecue purchased today lasts around 10 years.
A different company from when he joined – in 1991 it was more wholesale weighted than retail, today there are five retail stores and no wholesale business – Mikkelsen humbly credits his team with much of the success. “I’m not that great a retailer, but we’ve got the best retail team I’ve ever seen,” he says. “And if I installed the fireplace in your home you’d want to check on your insurance policy, but our fireplace department is fantastic. I’m a horrible salesperson, but we’ve got amazing salespeople. Our accounting team is awesome. We’ve got these core people who, if I get out of the way and let them lead their teams, everybody’s going to be a lot more successful.”
“We have two rules here: you’ve got to engage and re-engage with the customers and you’ve got to respect your co-workers,” he says. “As long as you do those two things, we’ll sort the rest out.”
Mikkelsen senior is no longer involved in the day-to-day of the business, but Mikkelsen’s 20-year-old twins and two nephews are all working there this summer.
Despite the past five years of oil-price-induced economic malaise in Calgary (“it used to be just don’t screw it up, now we actually have to make good decisions”), Mikkelsen considers himself very fortunate to be in this city from both a business-owner and family perspective. “If you did a Venn diagram of the best places in the world to run a business and best places to raise a family, Calgary would be right in the bullseye,” he lauds. “I have a lot of gratitude for that.”
Mikkelsen’s family and business give back to Calgary’s community, through support for four main charities: the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund (JDRF), Alberta Cancer Foundation, Hospice Calgary and the Calgary Firefighter’s Burn Treatment Society. “Our daughter is a Type 1 diabetic, so we became involved with JDRF,” he says. “We love how they’re laser focused on a cure. Impressive group. My mother passed away in a Calgary Hospice facility in 2000 and we’ve been supporting that organization ever since.”
With a lengthy and successful history and uncertain times on the horizon, Mikkelsen employs the same perspective he always has: “It’s just barbecues. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. It’s a great, fun product to sell. We’re really lucky that people come in and they’re excited about all the fun stuff. What we do take seriously is that we only sell what we like. And that’s been very consistent because life’s too short. If we don’t like it, we don’t sell it.”
A measured and unfussy perspective we should perhaps all take during this unprecedented summer. Remain calm, focus on what matters, and above all, enjoy the good times – including the barbecue.