Bringing the inside out has become a popular concept when it comes to outdoor kitchen spaces. While Wisconsin may present seasonal challenges, for those who appreciate the taste and experience of cooking on the grill, the possibilities of what can be brought to patios are endless.
“Lately, we’ve seen a surge in the bells and whistles,” says Matt Springhetti, lead installer and sales representative with Springhetti Custom Outdoor Living in Neenah. “Essentially, you can take your kitchen from inside and copy and paste it outside.”
Outdoor amenities can run the gamut from elaborate to simple, says Andrew Vande Hey, president of Vande Hey Company, Inc. in Appleton. Stainless steel grills, brick ovens, sinks, coolers, drawers and outlets for technology are being incorporated in to many designs.
Some people want to “light a gas grill, throw on some burgers and that’s the extent of it,” shares Vande Hey.
Others, however, look at it as an opportunity to share a meal.
“It’s an element of the landscape that brings the family together,” says Vande Hey, comparing it to the Johnsonville brat commercial where the whole neighborhood congregates at one person’s house. “That’s part of the fun, I find, we’re eating together.”
Springhetti says customers are typically more interested gas grills rather than charcoal as cooking with gas is more convenient and quicker. Vande Hey also recommends ceramic grills such as The Big Green Egg, which have similarities to a convection oven.
As for countertops, Natural Encounters in Appleton offers an alternative concrete mix that doesn’t need to be covered or sealed, and requires no maintenance. It also doesn’t absorb moisture and can span up to 8 feet, says Owner Dale Laurin, who developed the mix. Concrete can be manipulated to look like soapstone or have a veining to resemble granite. It can be polished for more shiny appearance or less depending on taste, and comes in a variety of colors. Laurin has customized the mix for clients by incorporating crushed glass or other materials in to the design. He also is patent-pending on a lighter weight mix that incorporates porcelain from recycled toilets.
“What I can’t do is coins because when we polish it (the concrete) with diamonds, we’d polish George Washington’s face off,” Laurin says.
While pictures from online resources or magazines can be a helpful starting point, customers need to choose products that will withstand Wisconsin’s changing climate and be educated about their options overall.
“Be careful what you buy today because you have to live with that forever,” cautions Steve Boegh, owner of Fox Valley Stone & Brick Co., Inc. in Neenah. “We tell you the things you need to know, not necessarily what you want to hear.”
As Springhetti and Vande Hey note, it’s important to know how clients will use the space and how often. For customers who are unsure of their options, it can be beneficial to seek out completed projects. Vande Hey has created a working outdoor kitchen setup to demonstrate available products and has even offered cooking classes.
Digital renderings created with computer software and physically drawing out the area can give customers a better understanding of design concepts as well.
When it comes to working with his clients, Boegh begins with establishing a budget and then layers on the wish list items to see if the two are compatible. He believes clients need to be responsible with their funds and temper their expectations with realism. While customers shouldn’t exceed their comfort level, paying more on the front end for quality products will save them money over time, he says.
Ruth Thompson and her husband, Scott, decided to take the backyard deck of their Town of Neenah home up a notch and create an outdoor kitchen. They worked with Springhetti Custom Outdoor Living to renovate the space by replacing the failing wood deck with a stone-raised patio that defined the area and added architectural interest. Then a gas grill was built into an island countertop that incorporated a seating area.
As Ruth explains, the upgrade increased the functionality by “1,000 percent” and a gas line eliminated the need to refill propane tanks.
“My husband used to be alone while cooking, now people sit around that bartop area,” she shares. “We never dreamed it would be this nice.”
The Thompsons now use the outdoor kitchen about 10 months out of the year, where they may have used it only six before the remodel.
“They brought a lot of great ideas to us — but they were good at listening to us, too,” Ruth notes, adding Springhetti also worked with them to provide a cost-effective solution when an unexpected structural issue arose.
Marc Evans, a Grand Chute resident, had been thinking of adding an outdoor kitchen space to his home for a while. As a fan of Vande Hey, he went back to the business when he was ready.
The result was a 24-foot square space that incorporates a gas fireplace, refrigerator, built-in grill and two fire tables to create an outdoor living area, Evans explains.
“It’s there and ready to go whether there’s snow on the ground or it’s the middle of summer,” he says.
The versatile setting allows for cooking and dining, or sitting and relaxing virtually year round.
As a product supplier, Fox Valley Stone & Brick is able to access materials and assist with the design process, but doesn’t do installation. Boegh cautions against planning and creating the work yourself or dealing with a business that isn’t familiar with outdoor home projects due to the intricacies involved.
“Don’t try to save a buck when it comes to outdoor landscaping,” Boegh says. “An architect can design your home, but it takes an engineer to build it.”
Yet other experts advise customers to realize what they’re getting into if they plan on doing the work themselves.
“Almost any homeowner can do this themselves with the right guidance. That’s the key,” says Laurin.
“What I always tell my customer is it’s not a DIY thing unless you have enough people and equipment,” adds Springhetti.
James Reif of Appleton is a homeowner who decided to create his own outdoor kitchen after contemplating the project for a couple of years. The
do-it-yourselfer poured the patio during phase one and built the outdoor kitchen area — which includes two grills, a beverage center with faucet and cooler, refrigerator, and drawers and cabinets for storage, as well as a bar with countertops from Natural Encounters — during phase two after doing internet research and seeking the advice of a professional who assisted him throughout the process. Reif will be entering the third phase of his project this year by adding a pergola and outdoor fireplace.
“It will never be as good as having a professional person do it,” Reif adds, but notes he was able to save money and work with products that made errors more forgiving, like Unilock patio pavers. “My personality is I like to stay busy. … It takes a certain type of person to do what I did.”
And, as he explained to his dad who cautioned him against the big investment, “this is my fishing boat.”