Like many suburban lots, Mike Alterman's backyard will be obscured this summer by plumes of savory smoke. Out on the patio by the pool, Mr. Alterman will gleefully cast porterhouse and salmon steaks onto a hot grill and tend them to perfection.
But he will be working on a much grander scale than his neighbors do.
Mr. Alterman's tool of choice represents a new category of grills Â- what might be called the bigfoot of backyard cooking. Eight feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet high, Alterman's "barbecue island" includes stainless steel doors, a porcelain-tile countertop, a sink, cabinets, and room for a refrigerator.
"There's more surface area to put plates, there's room for other appliances," says Alterman, a resident of North Easton, Mass., who built the unit himself last spring. "You're not limited by the little size of a normal barbecue."
Alterman's backyard novelty is no island unto itself. Each year, Americans devote more time to grilling outdoors. Last year, 85 percent of American families owned grills. They are entertaining at home more and looking for casual, low-cost eating options.
Families that invested considerably in their homes the past decade Â- building patios and putting in pools Â- are now extending their kitchens and dining rooms to the backyard. One outgrowth: the grill island, also known as an outdoor kitchen. Made of brick, granite, stone, or marble, the islands contain openings into which owners can fit both built-in and stand-alone grills. Most also include cabinets, countertop space, warming bins, and eating space for a few people.
Some models incorporate appliances. Among them: broilers, deep friers, dishwashers, icemakers, ovens, refrigerators, rotisseries, and trash compactors.
The challenge for grillmakers, experts say, is making these premium grills affordable for the average family. "[Manufacturers] are beginning to take the intimidation out of the outdoor kitchen experience by bringing the price down," says Donna Myers, spokesperson of the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association in Arlington, Va.
Grill islands were conceived as a fictional toy for America's well-heeled. According to Ms. Myers, grillmaker Ducane built the first model in 1982 for the TV drama "Dallas." The producers of the program asked for a grill worthy of protagonist J.R. Ewing's ostentation. The finished product, called the "Southfork" after the Ewing ranch, was eight feet long, with cranberry-red cabinets, a salad bar, and a wet bar.
Today, grill islands are still primarily marketed to the well-off. PES, a barbecue-island distributor in Los Angeles, prices its high-end models between $4,000 and $15,000. But with heightened consumer interest, they expect prices to fall over the next few years. "Our customer base is growing 20 percent a year," says Ryan Hovey, PES sales manager. "These are just in their infancy in retail right now."
The grills are also catching on outside the havens of year-round grilling. Two years ago, they were primarily found in California, Texas, and Florida. Now, sales are sprouting across the US. "Our biggest growth market is the Northeast," says Mr. Hovey.
A shift in consumer preferences, experts say, prompted the onset of the outdoor kitchen. In 1989, 65 percent of American grill owners used charcoal-burning models. Now it's 48 percent.
Inexpensive charcoal grills are still available. The classic 18-1/2 inch Weber grill retails for $130. Yet even Weber appears to have observed consumers' hungering for more space. Its Kettle Work Table ($35) and Condiment Holder ($14) clip onto the grill's side, making room for extra food and tools.
Gas-heated grills overtook charcoal models in 1997 as Americans' preferred barbecue method. Gas grills are easier to start, heat up faster, and burn more cleanly, experts say.
They are also bigger every year. Most models are attached to carts. Some include cabinet space below the grill, and shelves, side burners, and warming racks above. Sunbeam sells basic gas-heated grills for about $200. Mid-range grills from Kenmore, priced at about $400, usually include a stainless steel or porcelain exterior and features such as extra cooking pans, griddles, and roasting racks.
The priciest models generally contain the most grill space. Kenmore's largest gas grill, the Kenmore Elite, holds 815 square inches of cooking space. It sells for about $1,200.
Those building a full-scale outdoor kitchen usually start with a premium grill. They almost always buy built-in models Â- sometimes called "brick-in" Â- which cannot stand alone. (Some stand-alone grills can be placed in islands using adapters available at specialty stores.)
Consumers usually place orders for an island through a specialty retailer. Most islands are custom-built according to the size of the grill and appliances included. In some cases, the islandmaker will build the island in the customer's backyard, though most usually arrive prebuilt. The owner need only drop the grill inside.
The custom-building process, Myers says, takes from two weeks to a month until delivery.
Others hire a local contractor. Jay Messler, vice president of Modern Landscaping in Easton, Mass., has built six islands the past two years. Customers generally order an island measuring about 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet high, he says. The finished product Â- with a granite top, steel doors, and spaces for small appliances Â- costs about $3,500, according to Mr. Messler.
But many islandmakers are designing more price-friendly models to take advantage of what they perceive as the product's high "wow" factor.
"We found there's a great deal of ego and a lot of impressing the neighbors with these grills," says Myers. "If they sell one of these babies in a neighborhood, they know they'll sell three or four more around there right away."
Islands generally cost in the thousands. But there are more practical options. Grillmaker Brinkmann, for example, sells a basic gas grill with an adjoining sink for $350.
NAC, a grill-accessory manufacturer in Barrie, Ont., sells its Napoleon island for $1,300. It includes a grilling area, two doors, and a stainless steel countertop. Hexagonal attachments, which can hold various appliances, are available for about $1,000.
A six-foot mahogany outdoor kitchen from Vermont Island of Putney, Vt., can accommodate a refrigerator and sink, according to operations manager Randy Green.
Owners usually connect the sink to a garden hose or hire a plumber to put in pipes. Most island grills are fueled by liquid propane, although some people run a natural-gas line to the grill from their houses. The cabinet itself sells for $2,400, while the sink and refrigerator cost $300 and $835, respectively.
Many backyard barbecuers may have a new hoop to jump through before they fire up the grill this summer.
As of April 1, the 61 percent of grill owners who use liquid propane (LP) must fit their tanks with a new safety feature this year before they can get a refill.
The Overfilling Prevention Device is required for propane tanks that hold between 4 and 40 pounds. (Most consumers use a 20-pound tank.)
The valve limits filling to 80 percent capacity. When overfilled tanks heat up, the gas inside expands, creating a fire hazard.
Grills sold after October 1998 are already equipped with the safety valve. They can be recognized by an OPD stamp on the tank body or by their triangular valve control. Older controls are usually round or star-shaped.
Consumers with outdated tanks have little choice but to comply with the new law. Many propane dealers and specialty barbecue stores are "requalifying" old tanks with the new device for a fee. Others offer a trade-in program.
Jeff Tufts, owner of Grillman Propane Home Hearth Patio, a specialty barbecue store in Easton, Mass., updates old tanks for $19. He drains and disposes of old tanks and replaces them with new models for $32.
AmeriGas, a national LP dealer, charges between $19 and $23 for a new tank. Refills often run about $15.
Many experts recommend that consumers replace their tanks altogether, given that older cylinders often have dents or rust, which might indicate leaking. In addition, those with older grills might need an adapter to connect the grill to the tank. The device is available at hardware stores for about $10.