No Bull: Augusta company grabs pellet grill market by the horns

The Great Recession turned out to be the best thing to happen to Ray Carnes’ career; he stopped selling used cars and set out to build the barbecue grill he always wished he could buy.

 

“The economy tanked and all of a sudden I couldn’t give away a car,” Carnes said. “I’m sitting on the couch thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ Then I said, ‘I’m going to make the ultimate grill – the grill that didn’t exist at the time.’”

And with that, REC TEC Grills was born.

If the double-digit growth in annual sales since the first REC TEC was sold in 2011 is an indication, Carnes has indeed made the ultimate grill.

The Augusta-based company’s two signature “pellet-grill” products – the full-size RT-680 (“The Bull”) and the smaller RT-300 (“The Mini”) – have developed a cult-like following among aficionados in the small but growing segment of the outdoor grilling market.

Pro golfer and unabashed carnivore John Daly keeps a REC TEC Mini pellet grill in his RV. REC TEC counts country stars Rodney Atkins, Craig Wayne Boyd and Luke Combs among its customers. Brantley Gilbert’s REC TEC Bull gets three seconds of screen time in his video for The Weekend.

The Arlington, Va.-based Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association says pellet grills account for less than 3 percent of all grill sales but are quickly growing in popularity. The association’s recent survey suggests 11 percent of grill buyers plan to purchase one in the coming year.

The privately held REC TEC, which operates out of 55,000 square feet in the Masters Industrial Park off River Watch Parkway, doesn’t disclose its financials. Carnes however said gross sales last year were in the low eight-figure range.

“It took me one year to sell the first 90,” Carnes acknowledged. “Now, some days, we sell 200 in a day.”

Long before the 30-employee company was getting celebrity shout-outs, mentions in Forbes magazine and appearances on TV shows such as HGTV’s Yard Crashers, there was the company’s spartan 3,000-square-foot office off Bobby Jones Expressway.

REC TEC Operations Manager Ben Lesshafft – technically the company’s first “employee” – recalls working in a building that today wouldn’t be large enough to house the company’s inventory of signature spice rubs and sauces.

“I can remember being on the phone with a customer on a forklift while loading a grill onto a truck,” he recalled. “It was multi-tasking at its most evil.”

The forklift, by the way, was well-worn and had bent forks. Carnes picked it up from a plumbing supply company by trading a grill for it.

The 45-year-old entrepreneur said he couldn’t have launched REC TEC without financial help from his childhood friend, Ron Cundy, a practicing attorney now living in Atlanta. The buddies and former roommates used the first names of their children — Cundy’s Ross and Ella, and Carnes’ Colden – as the basis of the “REC” in the company name.

As for the grills’ bull logo and bovine-esque styling – the cover handles are bullhorn-shaped – that’s all Carnes.

“I was thinking it would be a cool animal to represent,” he said.

But it’s what’s inside a REC TEC that makes it unique. Like other pellet grills, Carnes’ uses hardwood pellets as a fuel source instead of charcoal or propane. The pellets impart a wood-smoke flavor and are temperature-controlled by an electronically regulated hopper that feeds a combustion chamber.

REC TECs are the only models on the market with proportional integral derivative (or PID) temperature controllers, rust-resistant 304 stainless steel on critical parts, baked-on porcelain enamel exteriors and a six-year warranty.

Like most of REC TECs pellet-grill competitors, the grills are manufactured in China. But Carnes said he went through 11 manufacturers before finding one that could meet his quality standards.

“You can build a quality product over there if you want to,” he said. “You just can’t go to the lowest bidder.”

Though customers occasionally purchase a grill at the Augusta showroom and distribution center – about 1,000 people showed up to a one-day “scratch-and-dent” sale in March – more than 95 percent of REC TECs are sold online through the company’s website and third-party online retailers such as Amazon. Nearly all pellet-grill competitors sell through brick-and-mortar retail channels.

REC TECs are freighted to the customer’s doorstep within four days of the order, depending on the address. The full-size REC TEC model weighs 203 pounds by itself; with the “kitchen sink bundle” of pellets, spices, sauces and other merchandise the poundage exceeds 500.

With its two well-established models in the market, Carnes said he plans to introduce four new products next year: the “Matador,” a propane-fired wok-style cooker; the “Rectagon,” an octagon-shaped pellet grill slightly larger than the Mini; the “Bullseye,” a low-cost model designed specifically for brick-and-mortar retailers; and the “Argentina,” which Carnes would not discuss.

“It’s top secret,” he said.

As with REC TEC’s existing products, the new grills will be shipped with an owner’s manual that includes a welcome letter and the personal cellphone numbers of both company co-founders, the operations manager and marketing manager Jody Flanagan.

Yes, customers actually do call the numbers, Flanagan says. And, yes, the REC TECers actually do answer.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said. “If the phone rings at 2 a.m. and I’m sleeping, I’m not going to pick it up. But I’ve answered calls at 5:30 a.m. We all have. I’ve heard Ray talking to customers on a Super Bowl Sunday about how to cook a brisket.”

That method, by the way, is 17 hours at 225 degrees.

If you called Carnes this Thanksgiving to talk turkey – the full-size REC TEC can cook two at a time – he’d tell you to use the grill just like you would your kitchen oven: 350 degrees the whole way. Or you could save some time and just go to the company’s YouTube site to see the natural-born griller in action.

“I’ve got three recipes,” Carnes said. “The Asian, the Cajun and the Raymond.”

 

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3352 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

 

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