Outdoor grilling is as popular as ever in the Rio Grande Valley, with greater numbers of people taking it well beyond simply firing up a gas grill or charcoal pit on the back patio to cook steaks, ribs, chicken, vegetables and more. A fast-growing segment is expanding their options to install outdoor kitchens, some of which are as well-equipped as the indoor versions.
Ruben Castillo, an architect who moved to the Valley from Monterrey, Mexico, opened Grill Street in McAllen five years ago. “Outdoor kitchens have really been blooming in the last 10 years, he said. Everybody here in the Valley, everywhere, likes to grill and entertain outside. And when you have the right place to do it you can spend a lot of quality time with your family, with your friends. That’s what this business is all about, to touch a lot of families every year.”
It was about seven years ago that Castillo set out to build an outdoor kitchen in his home. He could not find a company to design and build the kitchen, so he did it himself. That was the genesis of what would become Grill Street.
Grill Street carries about 15 brands of grills, smokers and other equipment like refrigerators and wine coolers that can be installed in a custom-designed outdoor kitchen. Castillo and another architect use 3-D design software to create outdoor kitchen layouts to fit a variety of spaces and budgets.
“You come to us with an idea and we can make it work,” he said. “It’s about what are you going to use it for and it is custom designed. We guide you through the process of what you need. We try to integrate everything all together, not just be the store where you buy the equipment.”
Castillo said he sees people who have constructed an outdoor space for cooking and entertaining, and then come to his store to buy equipment. The problem with that can be a sometimes rude awakening when the equipment doesn’t fit the space in a functional and aesthetic way.
“With us, everything is custom,” he said. “You don’t have to go to another place to get people to install it for you. If you want the equipment, you want the design, you want the installation, everything we can do. It’s important to make things fit and work together.”
Castillo’s Grill Street installations may include features like a concrete or tile patio area with counter spaces designed for specific cooking equipment and accessories, all under a custom-designed pergola with lighting to make the space inviting after dark. Grill Street handles the design and equipment in-house, and subcontracts the construction phases.
The result is a permanent addition that adds value to a home as well as creates an ergonomic social gathering place. And it is an investment on the part of the homeowner.
“Just the grills alone, I have grills that cost $1,000 and I have one grill that costs $8,000,” Castillo said. “People can spend between $5,000 and $50,000 for an outdoor kitchen, but usually the price range on the outdoor kitchens is $12,000 to $20,000.”
Grill Street serves the Valley with outdoor kitchen installations from Rio Grande City to South Padre Island. Castillo said he will help people from out of the area design a kitchen, with the customer taking on the responsibility of hiring contractors for the build-out.
“We have been growing every year but we are still a small family-owned and -managed business,” he said. “We are not a big company or anything like that. We try to go local with everything, from the construction to the labor, the theme, everything, we do it all here in the Valley.”
After five years in its current location, the Grill Street showroom is crowded with grills and other outdoor cooking amenities, and boxes with new deliveries are stacked in what little floor space is left.
“We are looking to expand to a bigger space,” Castillo said. “I need more room. We are trying to buy land and build something bigger, a 5,000-square-foot showroom and more storage space.”
From time to time, Grill Street hosts classes on outdoor cooking, a service Castillo said generates more interest in outdoor kitchens and helps his customers become more confident in their skills as home chefs.
The classes are something Grill Street has in common with South Texas Outdoor Kitchens, another Valley business dedicated to outdoor cooking. With locations in Pharr and McAllen, South Texas Outdoor Kitchens offers a wide variety of cooking equipment, although it does not provide design and construction services.
A family enterprise established by the Cardenas family, the business started out as Backyards Unlimited, selling primarily outdoor items like swing sets, trampolines and basketball goals. As Rick Cardenas, the founder’s son, began to take over from his father, he shifted the business’ emphasis to outdoor cooking.
“I have always been a barbecue enthusiast,” he said. “I just really saw a niche and I decided to try something down here locally. I have never met anybody that didn’t want an outdoor kitchen in their back yard. Everybody has a kitchen inside, so why not have one outside, too. We’ve been doing it for the last two years and it’s just exploding. It’s grown to where the barbecue has taken over the whole building, where it used to be a small little corner.”
An authorized dealer for about 15 brands of grills, smokers and other equipment, Cardenas said he leans toward quality merchandise. “I don’t like to sell junk so we bring in the more quality stuff for the enthusiast, people who want to step up their game. The umbrella for barbecue is so big now, there are so many ways to do it.”
Cardenas said the outdoor cooking classes are a good way to build customer loyalty as well as provide a service. “They are a great way for people who are novices and who want to step up their game to socialize and create a community with other grillers. This month we are doing a steak and lobster class, you know, don’t go out and eat for Valentine’s Day, cook something nice and stay home.”
Cardenas earned a bachelor’s degree in business finance from what was then the University of Texas-Pan American, which has served him well along with his personal outlook toward making a living. “I grew up with the philosophy, ‘do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.’”