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Road Trip-Tasty Licks Barbecue

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I recently made a BBQ related road trip to Shillington, PA. If Shillington, PA sounds vaguely familiar to you, then you may have seen YouTube vides by Fred Bernardo, aka “The Smoking Guitar Player”, owner of Tasty Licks Barbecue supply. From the YouTube videos I had watched, I could see it was the largest BBQ stores I had ever seen. It was certainly bigger than any BBQ store I am aware of here in New England. Some things recently came together to allow me to make a 32 hour quickie road trip to Tasty Licks, which is the subject of this blog entry.

BACKGROUND:
Typical New England BBQ Stores: This is a bit deceiving because I can’t think of any large dedicated BBQ stores here in New England, at least not the size of Tasty Licks. The largest store I have seen, is less than half the size of Tasty Licks. I am guessing a lot of that is due to the cold winter months here and the fact: “Everybody knows that no one grills in the winter”. I am not sure what it is I do then, but it can’t be grilling and I digress. So for a store to survive in the months where “no one grills” they must have a second business to help get them through the winter. These stores typically cater to the more serious griller and carry the Weber grill line, or Big Green Eggs or both. They are combination businesses: Grills and fireplaces, grills plus hot tubs, saunas and spas, grills and hardware etc. Back in 2003 there was one store here called Backyard Barbecue that had 3 locations in Massachusetts. They tried to get by on a business model of selling grills and outdoor furniture. They were a great BBQ store with many clever promotions like a “Sauce of the Month” club to get folks back in the stores. They also offered grilling and smoking classes to help draw people in. As good as they were, even I questioned how they would survive the winter months with that combination of businesses. The short answer was they didn’t. Backyard Barbecue survived less than one year. Pennsylvania has cold winters too. So how does Tasty Licks do it? I don’t know for sure, but several things come to mind. First of all there was the established music business to draw people to that location and it’s profits may have been used to help the BBQ business. The other thing is their large internet presence. They were selling things online from the start and promoting themselves via their YouTube training/promotional videos. Selling via the internet allows them to reach beyond the Northeast U.S. and it’s cold winters.

Tasty Licks Barbecue Supply: I had been aware of (and somewhat interested in) this store long before I became an Egghead. Many of the Tasty Licks BBQ YouTube videos involved using or cooking things on the Gig Green Egg. In my pre-Egghead days these did not interest me at all. But there were also some videos where they demonstrated various pieces of Barbecue or Grilling gear. If you have ever seen one of Fred Bernardo’s videos you won’t soon forget them. There was an electronics chain in NY, NJ, PA & CT called Crazy Eddies and I used to see ads for Crazy Eddies on the New York City stations on our cable system. These ads featured a “crazy” announcer describing prices so low, he must be crazy to offer them. Fred Bernardo has a bit of this crazy persona, but he isn’t shouting about low prices, he is just a little overly enthusiastic. It is a bit like seeing the Crazy Eddie announcer on a day where he took all his meds. Bottom line, the technique works because here I am talking about it. Fred Bernardo was a professional musician and his first business venture was a very successful music store. One of Fred Bernardo’s hobbies was BBQ and about 8 years ago he expended into BBQ. He has his own line of BBQ rubs and sauces and competes on the local BBQ circuit In Pennsylvania. In addition to the brick and mortar store in Shillington, he has a large online presence with a large website, a YouTube channel containg around 175 videos and his products are sold through many 3rd party online and brick and mortar BBQ stores. The YouTube videos are a mix of How To’s and Sales and a little zaniness all in one video. Many of them feature the Big Green Egg, and lately Kamado Joe & Primo kamado grills. Tasty Licks also has a barbecue team that competes in the local barbecue circuit.

THE TRIP:
The Seeds: Since becoming a Big Green Egg owner 3 years ago, I became more interested in the You Tube Videos. They helped me get up to speed on my Big Green Egg. There were some grilling accessories he talked about that interested me. I could see them on their website, but I really wanted to see them in person before buying. We don’t have large BBQ stores like this in my area and I always thought it would be great if we did. One of the YouTube videos mentioned people from all over the US drive to Shillington to visit the store. Fred said he even had someone drive from as far away as Australia. Yes he said drive. I started thinking it might be fun to make a road trip down there. I actually looked into it several years ago, but the expense ruled it out. Back then driving was off the table. I had a 1994 Ford Ranger and a 700 mile (1,125km) round trip was totally out of the question. I looked into taking the train from Boston to Philly, and renting a car to drive to Shillington. Throw in a hotel and this was too expensive. Forget planes for the same reason. This year I have a 6 month old VW Jetta in my driveway and the trip was suddenly feasible. Things in my work and personal life have been a bit crazy since December and I felt I needed a mental health break. I had a 2 week window where there was no work and everything else had settled down too. In two weeks work looks like it will be getting real busy again.

THE TRIP-Logistics: I really wanted to make this trip while the weather was nice so it was now or never till fall. This time around I checked out driving, which I had never looked into before due to my aging pickup. I was pleasantly surprised to find driving was a just under 6 hour event. I had never mapped it out before and I assumed it might be closer to 8 hours by car. I was able find a good hotel room about a mile away for $84.00. My out of pocket would be two tanks of gas and the hotel or about $140.00. I also had two unused $50.00 American Express gift cards in my wallet, so my first $100 in grilling purchases would be covered. I toyed with the idea of staying a second night, but with some of the things going on back at home I really didn't want to be gone for two nights. So this would be a quickie trip. I left early Friday morning and returned just before noon on Saturday. I wanted to make sure my mental health break didn’t turning into an ordeal instead of fun. I took a look at the Apple Map(s) for the drive, which had 3 suggested routes. I picked the middle length route which avoided the string of cities starting from Hartford, CT down to New York City. For a lot of that stretch you are on I-95 and I really dislike that stretch of road for many reason. By leaving at 4:00AM I could pass through the major cities in Massachusetts before rush hour and when I reached Connecticut my route would use Parkways to go around the major cities. In particular I would avoid driving on I-95 through New York City. The Parkways are car only roads and are very scenic because you are passing through woods the entire time. On paper at least this sounded like a plan.

THE STORE:
I arrived pretty much on schedule just after they opened at 11:00 AM Friday morning. I didn’t have to keep my eyes on the numbers on the buildings. I recognized the building from far away, having seen it in the videos. Right next door to it was the building housing Fred’s Music Store. The two buildings are interconnected on the inside. While I was in the barbecue store, I could here some guitar licks wafting through from the music store on the other side.

Downsized: Although the outside of the building was exactly as I expected, the inside was a different story. The YouTube videos I had seen were circa late 2013. It seems a year ago they had done a reorganization where they moved some things around and had eliminated some products. In the 2013 YouTube videos here were several smaller bays in the store that housed more grills and accessories. These were nowhere to be seen and it looked like the music side of the business may have taken over these spaces. The other thing missing was the “Smoking Guitar Player” himself and his companion from the videos: Lilly “the Smoking Retriever”. I heard the sales folks telling people the “SGP” would be in tomorrow (Saturday). I would be heading home at 3:00AM Saturday morning, long before they opened. This wasn’t the end of the world for me, I was there mainly for the store and not the star. Judging by the date he started the music store I am guessing the “SGP” is nearing retirement age. He is probably taking advantage of having two successful businesses and taking some well deserved time off. This might also explain why he has cut down the amount of YouTube videos he posts these days. To be honest I was more disappointed in there not being as many grills as I expected to see. The Weber gassers had been eliminated and it looked like there were less pellet grills. I am not in the market for either of these types of grills, but it would have been interesting to see them to see what is new.

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Sales Area Panorama 1
2 PANORAMAS - 360 degree views of main Sales Area


Lots of Kamados: But enough talking about what was missing, lets talk about what was there. Even though the sales area seemed to have been reduced, this was still the biggest BBQ store I had ever seen and dwarfs anything I had seen in New England. At least double the size as I mentioned earlier. They are still big into kamado grills, carrying all of the Big Green Egg models except for the XXL, several models from the Kamado Joe line and several Primo grills including the Oval XL. What they don’t stock in the store, they can order for you. This was my first time seeing a Primo Oval XL in the flesh and I was impressed. The one thing I miss from my 6-burner gas grill is the ability to easily do a two (or 3) zone fire. The Half-Moon Raised Grill Grid Eggcessory allows you to do a 2 zone fire of sorts, but the cooking area is limited. Now that I have 3 Eggs, I can do a 2 Egg 2 zone fire, but that is not practical for everyone. I like the size of the LBGE and I would have to give serious thoughts about whether the Primo would be too much grill for my day to day use. I know you can use the divider plate to reduce this, but I am guessing it would use more charcoal due to the larger interior volume you will be heating. Let me just say I didn’t see anything about the Primo that I didn’t like. I also like the split racks and other accessories allowing you to do multi-shelf cooks at several heights.

Divide & Conquer: I also saw the Kamado Joe Divide and Conquer flexible cooking system. In my opinion this system is more flexible and better executed than the various Big Green Egg branded Eggcessories for doing this task. I did smile a bit because the was a case of the shoe being on the other foot. Many of the kamado grills that came to market after the Big Green Egg, copied the look and size of the Big Green Egg right down to the same exact grill size as the LBGE. This allowed owners of their grills to use Big Green Egg branded Eggcessories without the company having to make their own versions. I was told that quite a few Big Green Egg owners are buying the Kamado Joe Divide and Conquer accessories for use on their Eggs. Honestly I think the folks at Big Green Egg have been resting on their laurels for a number of years now. Sure they are the number one selling kamado grill and have a great reputation, but nothing says this is forever. I feel like they are being out innovated by many of the newer kamado manufacturers. I mean renaming the Plate Setter to the ConvEGGtor is a joke IMHO and a waste of time with no benefits to the user. Spend the money used rebranding the Plate Setter to come up with something new and innovative. The company did release some Eggcessories for the XLBGE which were previously unavailable. The folks at Tasty Licks said they are selling quite a few more XLs than ever. This mirrors what I have heard from dealers back home too. But IMHO the Big Green Egg company needs to stop talking and release some new and truly innovative accessory products.

They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To: Generally true, but there are some exceptions. I was most interested in seeing the Meadow Creek line of grills and smokers which are made just down the street in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) country. I was curious to see how their build quality would compare to the typical grill or smoker. The difference was like night and day. Meadow Creek also builds professional smoking or large grilling rigs on trailers. They seem to use the same quality of materials in the units made for backyard BBQ as they do for the huge trailers. The steel used is 13 ga. You can tell from rapping your knuckles on it, that this is not the typical flimsy steel used on most backyard grills or smokers. All of the stainless steel is the type 304 (non-rusting) stainless steel that is rarely used these days. The welds are all heavy duty and well executed. They had some really nice features without being flashy about it. Now I do NOT know how these units perform in their task as cookers, but based on the build quality alone I was impressed. I thought the price was reasonable for something that will last 20 or 30 years. It is good to see there are still some well-built products made in America, for people who know the difference. Yes there is a big difference between a value engineered unit made in China that will last a grilling season or two and a high quality unit that will last a long long time. When you have to buy a new cheapie unit every few years it can cost you more money in the long run than purchasing a high quality unit from the start. I was very impressed with the Meadow Creek units I saw on sale here.

Getting Sauced: This store had the biggest selection of BBQ sauces and rubs I have ever seen. There was a wall about 32’ long displaying sauces and rubs. This wall had 3 or 4 shelves the entire length of it devoted to 3rd party sauces and rubs. They ranged from brands I see back home, to brands I had only heard of but never seen, as well as brands that were totally new to me. I had fun looking at these products and some of the wild names they had. Example include: “Whoop Ass Smokin’ Mesquite Hot Sauce”, “Hemorrhoid Helper Hot Sauce” and “New Asshole Hot Sauce”. There was a line of hot sauce whose various heat levels were described as: “Golden Death”, “Sudden Death”, “Mega Death”, “Stronger than Death” and “Beyond Death”. I also liked the fact that some of the sauces could be purchased in small bottles or jars as well as jug sized containers. There was also a large shelving unit displaying the Tasty Licks Brand of BBQ rubs and sauces. I liked the fact that they were available in several sizes: a 5 oz (142g) bottle, an 8 oz. (230g) bottle, a 1 pound bag (520g) bag and several of the more popular ones were also available in 5 pound (2.3kg) bags.I bought a couple of the rubs to try out the “Chunky Broadway” for steaks and the “Tree Hugger” for veggies and chicken. The sauces were available in small bottles and some were also available in large jars or bottles. This is certainly great if you are cooking for a large group. There were also a good selection of marinades and injector sauces.

Taking Your Lumps: The first level of the sauce wall was taken up with 20-22 pound (9-10kg) bags of lump charcoal. There were more brands here than I had seen in any one store before. They were all good brands that had a good reputation, no Cowboy lump in sight. It was a pleasant change to see a large selection of charcoal and that any of them were something I wouldn’t mind using.

Thermometers: Of interest to me: the store had a wide variety of Maverick thermometers, both remote read and instant read as well as many Tel-True dial thermometers which are the thermometers on the Big Green Egg. Better yet they carried spare probes for the Maverick remote read thermos. If you lived close by you could quickly deal with a burnt out probe. For me I have to wait 3 or 4 days to have it delivered or pay expensive overnight shipping charges. They also had a wide variety of analogue dial type grill/oven thermometers, button thermometers (for placing on the surface of your food) and every other type of thermometer you could think of, I was also able to pick up a replacement 6’ temperature probe for my BBQ Guru units, but it seems they are phasing out carrying this line in the store.

Pizza and Pasta:There were more pizza stones than I have seen in any one store. They came in a wide variety of diameters and thicknesses and there were some half moon shaped stones as well. There were some metal rod shelf risers for using two pizza stones at once on your ceramic grill and some ceramic blocks for elevating a pizza stone several inches above the PlateSetter. There were both imported and domestic flours, as well as accessories for making and rolling out pizza dough. There were screened pizza trays and dough pans for sale as well. There were several types of pizza peels, including some fancy ones imported from Italy. They also carried ingredients and tools for making and using sauces. Finally if you didn’t have a way to make your pizza outdoors they carried several outdoor pizza ovens. I might also add that their kamado grills like the Big Green Egg, Primo or Kamado Joe make an amazingly good pizza.

Etc. , Etc. : I could go on all day about the gear and accessories carried here. I didn’t pay as much attention to categories I am already well stocked in. You can take a look at their website to see some of the other things they carry. I will warn you: the website design isn’t pretty. It looks like a website from 10 or 15 years ago, but you can get an idea what they carry. In fact another reason for my trip was to check out some items from the website in the flesh. I really can’t think of an area of barbecue accessories they don’t have covered. They may not have a particular brand or model you are interested in, but they have the needs of most grillers or smokers covered in some fashion from A-Z.

CONCLUSION:
This trip accomplished what I had hoped for. By leaving early and avoiding most of the major cities along the way, the six hour ride through some scenic country was very pleasant and relaxing. I felt my stress levels going down. Despite my initial surprise that the store had downsized, it was still twice the size of the biggest barbecue store I have been to in New England. I got to spend some pleasant hours looking at the gear and accessories, some of which I had never seen in person before. I enjoyed talking to the friendly and helpful staff and came out with some items I couldn’t buy around here. Due to great gas mileage, an inexpensive hotel room and gift cards the trip had a low out of pocket expense. This trip accomplished all of my goals. Now I am not going to necessarily recommend others drive 6 hours plus to go here. Your tolerance or lack of for longer trips and your interest in barbecue stores may be totally different than mine. But if you are in that general neck of the woods anyway or have to divert an hour or so to go there, I think it would be worth the trip for many barbecue enthusiasts. Your mileage may vary, batteries not included, void where…

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