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LIFESTYLE : All Fired Up : High-quality, high-priced barbecues are sparking a hot new trend in back-yard living.

August 11, 1995|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reg Thibault, a big, grinning bear of a man with curly blond hair and bulky muscles rippling under a T-shirt, proudly lifted the lid on his new back-yard toy.

"This is the Cadillac of barbecues," he said.

It has a fast-starting natural gas grill with ceramic briquettes for even heating, a rotisserie with infrared element, a hickory or mesquite chip burner for smokehouse flavor and two natural-gas burners so he can boil up a kettle of corn.

With its price tag of about $2,000, retailers say, Thibault's Dynamic Cooking Systems barbecue represents a hot new trend in the Valley--expensive outdoor kitchens and luxurious back-yard living.

"Our $500, $600, $700 barbecues sell like hot cakes," said Lon Gietzen, owner of Deforest's Patio Center in Woodland Hills. "We sell two or three a day of the higher-end units going for $800 to $1,000. It's real common for our customers to spend over $2,500.

"People are after quality and they are willing to spend the money," Gietzen said.

Thibault, a general contractor, owns a pool design business and has fixed up his 10,000-square-foot back yard in Van Nuys to impress potential clients. If you want to keep up with the Joneses--the Thibaults, in this case--the shopping list will be pricey.

The centerpiece of the Thibaults' al fresco kitchen--the barbecue--is set in a 24-foot, teal-tiled, U-shaped cooking center with a sink, electrical outlets and a refrigerator under the counter. There is also an inset cutting board, patio umbrella stand and counter with built-in chess, checkers and backgammon boards.

When the sun goes down, Thibault reaches for a remote control unit to click on floodlights over the lawn and flagstone patio. He can also punch up the jets or lights in his nine-foot spa or turn on the 10-foot-high rock waterfall that empties into the swimming pool.

Although not everybody wants or can afford all those bells and whistles, the brisk sales of expensive barbecues show that people are willing to spend more for their outdoor cooking equipment.

According to the Barbecue Industry Assn., a Naperville, Ill., trade group, annual U.S. sales of barbecues last year increased by 1.1 million units.

Retailers say many customers are moving up to higher quality units that can stand up to being cooked on several nights a week. "It used to be, people would spend $200 or $250 for a barbecue and then throw it away," said Tom Gold, operations manager of Virgil's Hardware in Glendale. "Now they are buying units with a 10-year guarantee."

People are also spending their earthquake repair checks on high-quality barbecues.

"I've probably sold a hundred high-end barbecues as earthquake replacements this year," Gold said. "We've had phenomenal growth in sales of expensive units the past two years."

Homeowners repairing quake damage account for 10% of the sales at Woodland Hills Fireplace Shop, said Hamlet Marderos, who said he sells truckloads of $980 Broilmasters for built-in installations.

But, as Gietzen said, even homeowners who escaped major quake damage are remodeling their patios.

People want to entertain at home, he said, so they invest in expensive barbecues, teak patio furniture and $900 outdoor heaters that ward off the evening chill in a cozy 12-foot circle. "We sell 10 of those a month," he said.

Ron Freeman, a land developer and president of Ron Freeman Investments, said he plowed $77,000 into the back yard of his new West Hills home. He started with a Turbo brand gas barbecue and added a tiled spa and pool, and he had large trees hauled in to give the landscaping a rich, established look.

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But the barbecue, set in a tiled cooking center, brings him special joy.

"We put it close to the house, so my wife can look out the window and see me cooking dinner," he said.

"We even cooked hash browns one morning," said his wife, Lynn. "And you're outside so you're not smelling up the house with fried potatoes."

Freeman likes to use his barbecue for ribs, but there is one thing that he insists on: "You've got to have the briquettes," he said. "I don't like those flame broilers."

Indeed, outdoor cooking fans have strong individual preferences, and barbecues are at the apex of one of the great issues dividing back-yard America: to charcoal or not to charcoal.

"The charcoal side won't go any other way because of the flavor and the gas side won't go any other way because of the convenience," said Ann Spehar, executive director of the Barbecue Industry Assn.

Americans are almost evenly split over the issue, last year buying 6.2 million charcoal cookers and 6.1 million gas or electric barbecues, Spehar said.

"During the summer we come out here four or five times a week," Freeman said. "We'll put on three or four racks of ribs. We have a lot family and friends over. Sometimes I'm cooking for 20 or 30 people."

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The Thibaults also love to throw big parties, and recently entertained about 150 friends and business associates one evening.

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