Don Cary thinks your grill is probably junk. Your smoker, too.
And he built a business – and has grilled cheesecake – to prove it.
Cary spent most of his career building a business making horizontal drilling machines and tools for boring holes for pipes and cables. It’s a pretty sophisticated product, requiring engineering, sophisticated machining tools and computer modeling.
In 2007, that business was slowing in the face of fierce competition. As a way to keep people at the plant busy and also have some cool gear for his own backyard, he launched a small side business making high-end meat smokers and grills. It was a pretty easy jump: he already had a plant full of guys and machines that could bend, cut and weld steel in any shape needed. He also has engineers on staff who can make 3-D models of any smoker before it’s built.
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These days, Yoder Smokers, at 1816 E. Wasp Road in Reno County, is the fastest growing component of his manufacturing businesses. He expects it to grow at least 25 percent in 2015.
His other two businesses are Straightline HDD, the maker of tools for horizontal drilling, and Source: HDD, which reconditions horizontal drilling equipment. The three manufacturing plants are clustered in the same site near Yoder, next to Hutchinson Community College’s south campus and the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center.
He also owns All Things Barbecue, a retail store in Delano and a website that sells barbecue equipment and supplies.
Yoder Smokers makes a broad line of smokers and grills, generally for those who really care about their barbecue. Cary sells to restaurants, businesses such as banks that host a lot of community events, people who barbecue competitively and those who take their outdoor cooking seriously.
“It works because of the backyard guy,” he said. “That is where our volume is.”
And as smoking meats has become more popular in recent years, that volume has definitely been on the rise.
Cary continues to tweak the line of products based on conversations with buyers or potential buyers.
“Everything important you learn as a businessman, you learn from your customers,” he said.
On a tour of the plant, Cary showed off the smokers and what makes them better: the carefully welded joints, the thoughtful design of the heat management plates with smaller holes closer to the firebox and larger holes farther away to balance out heat and smoke, the design for optimum airflow, the ability to customize the smoker.
They will grill a brisket, a rack of vegetables or even dessert. Cary recently grilled a Kahlua cheesecake that he later topped with ganache.
“It had just a hint of smoke,” he said with a grin.
Cheaper, mass-produced smokers and grills aren’t well designed, he said, and won’t produce a stable fire for even smoking or grilling.
“These ones from China, they never cook well,” Cary said. “They make your life miserable. Fifty times and they’re just done.”
All that high-level engineering and construction comes at a cost. His most popular model, the YS640 Pellet Smoker, which makes up roughly half of his sales, at retail starts at $1,349. But his products can go well over $15,000 for a large, customized off-set competition model mounted on a trailer for towing.
“It’s got a blacksmith-y look, but it’s made with computer-controlled machines,” he said.
Kathy Bousquet, owner of Barbeque Mercantile in Austin, Texas, has sold Yoder Smokers for about four years and agreed they’re as special as Cary says.
“I’ve been cooking on pellet grills for 20 years and, yeah, they are ‘all that,’” she said. “They are incredibly well manufactured, and the company is delightful to work with.”
Cary said he sells about a quarter of his Yoder Smokers through his All Things Barbecue retail location, 818 W. Douglas in Wichita. The rest are sold through dealers around the country or shipped directly to customers.
His Yoder Smoker business was growing steadily but unspectacularly from 2007 to 2011. He opened his store in Delano in 2009.
At a show at the end of 2010, he introduced the pellet smoker and sales just shot up. A pellet smoker has an electronic controller that regulates the flow of wood pellets, giving the chef precise heat control.
“Last year, we doubled production and still never caught up,” he said.
Demand grew so much that he bought another building in Yoder near his main plant and moved his horizontal driller reconditioning business there. The freed-up space is now devoted to the smokers.
Although Cary owns all of the businesses, he has turned day-to-day manufacturing responsibilities over to his team – Joe Phillips, Jay Cary and West Antes – so that he can focus on growing the retail side of the barbecue business.
He has bought most of the block in Delano where All Things Barbecue is located. Within two months, he will take his store from 6,000 square feet to 14,000 square feet.
His longer-range plans include opening an All Things Barbecue in the Kansas City area in 2016.