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'It really becomes a passion': How Manitobans are enjoying this grilling season

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Be it a dry-aged steak seared on a ripping hot gas grill, full-flavoured turkey legs slowly cooked over a bed of wood pellets, or a breakfast spread expertly crafted on a flattop.

Barbecue season has arrived in Manitoba, and outdoor cooking is taking off this summer.

“The food’s gotten better, the experience has gotten better, and [people] are just enjoying everything about it,” Phil Squarie, co-owner of Luxe BBQ Company, told CTV News. “It really becomes a passion for them.”

Luxe opened about eight years ago, and co-owner Phil Squarie said there’s been a significant shift in how people are barbequing their favourite foods. While gas grills are still the go-to for many, he said there has been a recent surge of interest in wood pellet cookers and flattop grills.

“It’s always nice to have the gas grill to do hotdogs and [other] quick things,” Squarie explained. “But I think pellet grills have really seen a resurgence because you can do the big long cooks out there really easy – like full chickens, turkeys, ribs, roasts, that kind of stuff.”

A standard pellet grill uses compressed wood shaped into pill form as a fuel source. The pellets are loaded in a hopper and fed into a burn pot. The burning wood creates flames, smoke and heat – along with plenty of flavour. Woods used in pellet cookers include apple, cherry, hickory and maple.

Black Earth Grills, a manufacturer owned and operated by the Crystal Spring Hutterite Colony near Ste. Agathe, Man., builds several different models that use wood pellets.

“You’re not getting all these flare-ups. You just load it up, let it cook, and then you take it off when it’s done,” Ethan Hofer, Black Earth Grill’s production manager told CTV News. “And then, you have truly wood-fired flavour.”

Some Black Earth products sell for thousands of dollars; however, Hofer said hybrid grills, (gas and wood pellet methods combined), offer the “best of both worlds” and have become a draw for many customer, as has the concept of an outdoor kitchen space.

“People want to do more with their grills in summer,” Hofer explained. “They don’t necessarily want to heat up their houses, and they want to do more stuff in the backyard. That’s what we’re trying to appeal to.”

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a massive jump in backyard renovations and other outdoor improvements when restrictions were in place and travel was limited.

“I think people became more intention with their backyard spaces and trying to create areas they could host guests,” Hofer said.

At the time, contractors and landscapers reported double-digit hikes in demand, and stores like Luxe BBQ became go-to spots to help build backyard paradises.

“But I think it’s always been prevalent, as far as people enjoying spending time with family and friends, gathering around an open fire… and you know, there’s just something about a barbeque,” Squarie said. “You walk down the street with your dog at night and you smell someone cooking, and it just brings back memories of good times.”

However, barbequing these days isn’t just limited to the evening hours thanks to the growing popularity of flattop grills and griddles.

“My favourite meal to cook is breakfast, and now, I’m outside on a griddle.” Squarie said.

“You know, 25 pancakes at once or four pounds of bacon at once!”

A flattop grill is essentially a metal surface heated by a circular element underneath, (either gas or electric), and its biggest draw is versatility. Squarie said customers are cooking everything from stir-fries to smash burgers on their griddles.

The owner of Miller Meats, a local chain of butcher shops, said smash burgers are main eventing many barbeque menus this summer. Shawn Miller suggests using ground chuck over a leaner ground beef to maximize flavour and texture.

“We’ve got a lot of customers that come in looking for a certain amount of fat inside their ground beef in order to make smash burgers as effective as they can be,” Shawn Miller told CTV News.

And while a mouth-watering burger is an cost-effective option for the grill, Miller said customers aren’t straying away from more expensive choices this summer He said Miller’s sells a fair amount of high-end beef cuts like dry-aged steaks and Wagyu beef. He credits that to people wanting to create more of an experience when they’re grilling in summer.

Cost of meat fluctuating: Statistics Can

According to Statistics Canada, the cost of meat products continue to fluctuate month-to-month in Manitoba. And while most prices haven’t shifted much, some beef cuts have seen significant hikes. Top sirloin rose from $16.92/kg in April 2023 to $24.32/kg in April this year. Beef ribs saw an even bigger jump from $24.93/kg to $36.30/kg over that period.

Miller said, however, there are plenty of grilling options that don’t break the bank. He recommends marinating cheaper beef cuts ahead of time to enhance flavour and tenderness, or grabbing a pack of house-made smokies.

“And I think back ribs are always going to be on that list, and I think another really economical cut that gets overlooked is a pork butt steak,” Miller explained. “They’re always cheap, and they have a very high marbling amount in them, so they’re really easy to grill up.”

Despite all the gadgets and varieties available, the three entrepreneurs all agree barbequing in Manitoba comes down to a few simple things.

“If you have food, fire and friends – that kind of encompasses a lot of it,” Hofer laughed.

“I think, overall, once the weather turns, all logic goes out the window,” Miller said. “I think people are quite open to barbecuing almost every night.”

“It all boils down to community and gathering – that’s what barbecue is,” Squarie added.

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