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Grillers Hall of Flame: Barbecue history flavors this store
By Matt Bolch

Even if Gary Bertassi couldn't talk, you could see the passion in his eyes for the barbecue business.

Grillers Hall of Flame is located along a main artery in Indian Orchard, Mass.

But since he speaks just fine, in a raspy voice that suggests a past life as a radio announcer, let's allow the owner of Grillers Hall of Flame to take the stage.

"I like the passion that people bring to their backyard cookouts," says Bertassi, showing a visitor around his store. "It's good times and fun with family and friends rather than heating their homes, which can be an issue in New England."

Bertassi and wife Trena have owned Grillers Hall of Flame for 18 years, 17 of those along the main avenue in Indian Orchard, a suburb of Springfield, Mass. The store's playful name capitalizes on its proximity to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The couple make a formidable pair, running the store out of a 3,600-square-foot space, evenly split between showroom and basement storage. Two part-timers including Gary's dad, Felix, round out Grillers' staff.

Merchandising takes on a playful tone at Grillers Hall of Flame with merchandise sharing space with a collection of barbecue memorabilia. What's even more amazing is that the tight showroom shares space with another of Gary's passions - barbecue memorabilia. Ancient hibachis sit atop displays. Old aprons and an antique Barbeque Bash Barbie doll hang on slat walls next to the exact-fit replacement parts. A vintage unused Kenmore smoker sits on the showroom floor next to a current gas grill.

"We make real good use of our space," Bertassi says. "We use every little bit of space that's available."

Take one step into Grillers, and you know that barbecue is king here.

"We started with both hearth and barbecue, but hearth dominated our sales volume for the first few years," Bertassi says. "With grills and barbecue parts and accessories, there wasn't a lot of competition in the beginning years. We made a point of stocking exact-fit parts, which established our store in the market."

Hearth vendors include Regency and Waterford brands from Fireplace Products International, Heatech, Osburn, Morso and Mendota Hearth. In "usual" years, grills and accessories comprise 70% of store sales, with hearth taking the rest. But last year, with a soft grill market and stronger-than-normal hearth sales because of Y2K concerns, the percentages were even, Bertassi reports. In a good year, the store will sell 400 grills, including table top models. In a so-so year, that number drops to between 200 and 300.

On the hearth side, Grillers stocks Regency and Waterford brands from Fireplace Products International as well as Heatech, Osburn, Morso and Mendota Hearth. Among grills, the store carries Napoleon, Ellipse from Harpco, Vermont Castings, Ducane, Modern Home Products, Beefeater, Pacific Gas Specialties and Enviro Grill. The Grill-4-All from Kristline is the best-selling table-top at the store, which doesn't carry brands found in mass merchants.

Grillers also features an impressive array of barbecue accessories, including rubs and sauces from companies that have won awards from the National Barbecue Association, a variety of cookbooks and tools as well as grill covers from Grillfitti, the company Bertassi bought earlier this year with Ralph Taylor of Gas & Grills in Canton, Ohio.

Grill vendors include Vermont Castings.
In selecting hearth and grill vendors, Bertassi's relationship with company reps often seals the deal. "It really comes down to reps who'll look out for my business and not the company's," Bertassi explains.

Grillers Hall of Flame is not a discounter. Products sell close to suggested retail, and extras such as grill delivery and set-up are just that - extra. And throwing in a promotional cover as a bonus denies the company of an accessory sale and the customer of a quality product, Bertassi says.

The company's ads tout the expertise. Radio is the most-effective medium, Bertassi says, but Grillers also uses billboards and television.

Bertassi says he's thinking of leasing larger quarters or perhaps even buying another location, but it will remain in his hometown. "Many people don't know our name - we're known as that place in Indian Orchard." Ideally, he'd like to double the size of the current location, with ample storage space and enough room for an expanded barbecue museum.

The store features award-winning sauces and rubs.
The hatrack at Grillers has to be huge to accommodate Bertassi's varied interests. In addition to the retail and curator hats, he also still services longtime customers of his chimney sweep business. And then there's his hobby publishing business with The Backyard Barbecuer News, an 11-year venture that publishes two or three times each grilling season. The newspaper is self-supporting through advertising and is distributed free to more than 300 outlets in western Massachusetts, northern Connecticut, southern Vermont and part of New Hampshire.

And then there's Grillfitti, the grill cover company Bertassi bought with Taylor and Grillfitti founder Maureen Shepperd. The company was previously owned by Paul Vizzini of Aqua Pools and Spas in Phoenix.

Bertassi started repping the line a couple of years ago, and when Vizzini wanted to sell, Bertassi added a manufacturer hat to the hatrack.

Plans for Grillfitti are to expand the base of specialty retailers that currently carry the product and then capitalize on the company's current popular designs, while adding new ones. "We intend to first concentrate on our specialty retailer base before we again solicit OEM work," Bertassi says, referring to making covers for grill manufacturers. "We want to work with specialty retailers to give them something special that will not be sold in mass merchant outlets."

And that something special is what sets Grillers Hall of Flame - and the Bertassi's - apart from local competitors.

"I still have a tremendous amount of energy, but a lot of it is fun for me," Bertassi says of his varied interests.