The Wood-Fired Blog

The Outdoor Fireplace and Real Estate Values

I’ve written quite a bit over the years about pizza ovens and real estate values. In the early days of the the Forno Bravo Forum, we had a community member who had built (and loved) a Pompeii Oven, who had been transferred at work and need to move and sell his house. This was during the worst moments of the economic downturn and the drop in house values. But he was able to sell his house, and he was convinced that his beautiful oven was one of the big factors as to why he was able to sell it. And with the recently articles in the NY Times and South Carolina’s Post and Courier, it’s good to see the trend continue.

But yesterday’s NT Times article in the Long Island Regional Real Estate section; Creating Outdoor Appeal opened my eyes to the wider opportunity.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Outdoor fireplaces, outdoor kitchens and outdoor living space as a whole can add value to your house and help you sell your house. And the “stay cation” theme is alive and well.

During spring and summer on Long Island, as buyers think about relaxing, entertaining, barbecuing and “staycations,” backyard appeal is as important as curb appeal in selling a home. Standards have been pushed higher than ever these days; a dining table with an umbrella on the patio and a few chairs on the lawn no longer make the grade.

And,

These well-appointed “yards on steroids” are a magnet for spring- and summertime buyers. “People come in and they go right to the backyard,” Ms. Hauser said, citing a listing in Lloyd Neck with multiple levels of patios, and a large pool with a grotto, a swim-up bar and a built-in barbecue. “They are so excited to have this extra living space. It’s the generation that is looking for instant gratification. If two houses are next to each other and one has that extra living space, it adds some sort of inherent value. People like to be outside.”

New Forno Bravo Outdoor Fireplace

Can you leak photos of a new and not yet released, or announced product on your own web site? haha.

I guess you can’t call it a leak. Anyway, this is the base of a new outdoor fireplace that we are working on. There will be many more details to come and we will keep you in the loop as this comes together. It’s exciting, and I think it is a lot of fun sharing inside details with you. That’s what blogging is all about.

3 Unexpected Reasons to Have an Outdoor Fireplace

From Houzz.com.

And the three unexpected reasons to have an outdoor fireplace are:

1. A vertical focal point.

2. Structure and definition.

3. Light and warmth.

One thing I like about the article is the introduction—which sounds very similar to my Outdoor Fireplace posting the other day (cool spring days).

Having trouble heading back inside as sunny spring days turn cold at sunset? Outdoor fire features are a great way to extend the livability of your outdoor space into the evening. While fire pits and fire as art are all the rage, the traditional fireplace offers so much more than physical warmth. Consider adding a hearth to an outdoor room if you need any of the following.

You can read the entire article here.

Innovating the Outdoor Fireplace: Part 2

Today I want to add more information to my previous posting on Innovating the Outdoor Fireplace by adding a parallel between the outdoor pizza oven and the outdoor fireplace.

If you were to flash back four years, before Forno Bravo introduced the Primavera series (and later the Andiamo series) ovens, you would see a pizza oven market dynamic similar to today’s outdoor fireplace market. Not only had Forno Bravo not introduced the Primavera ovens, we had also not yet introduced the Casa2G, Giardino and Premio2G modular pizza oven kits that revolutionized the oven industry. Basically the pizza oven market was characterized by moderate quality, very expensive oven kits imported from Europe—that all required custom installation.

This is a true story—we had a neighbor in Healdsburg, CA (where we lived at the time) who spent $20,000 on a custom installation for a 31” “rustic” pizza oven kit from an Italian oven importer. The family was at the leading edge of the trend, and there just weren’t any good choices at the time.

But in order for the industry to move beyond the early adopters, people who were willing to spend $20,000 on what turned out to be just a small pizza oven, we needed offer better and different alternatives. We believed that there was a market for a small, but “true” masonry pizza oven. The design needed to be true to the requirements (really bake 90 second Pizza Napoletana with a wood fire), while meeting some basic rules—could be set up by hand, without requiring any special tools or equipment; required zero building skills, etc. And we were right. We built the prototypes, and I tested the first ovens at my house. And it worked!

We put the Primavera in the Forno Bravo Store and we started getting our first orders within days. It was a great experience. Years later the Primavera oven continues to be a best-seller.

I believe that this dynamic can play itself out again in the outdoor fireplace market. There are many parallels. The design and weight issues are very similar—the product needs to be something that a homeowner with zero building experience can set up without any special equipment, tools, skill or knowledge. Even more importantly, the experience needs to be authentic. Where a small pizza oven needs to actually make great pizza, a small, but authentic, outdoor fireplace needs to look and feel like a real masonry fireplace.

There are other parallels that I could about, such as the philosophical similarities between the “design approach” of the Calore2G and the Casa2G, and the ability of Forno Bravo to create wonderful exterior finishes, such as hand-glazed stucco, in a factory environment—where the cost is significantly lower than the same finish done on a construction site. But you get my point.

This is getting exciting.

Innovating the Outdoor Fireplace

I’ve been thinking about outdoor fireplaces a lot recently. There is something about fire on a cool spring evening with the fog rolling in (we live near the ocean) that is really great. That, and I’ve been using my outdoor pizza oven quite a bit recently, and I’ve been moving the fire and coals from the oven to my outdoor fireplace when it comes time to bake bread. Hey, it’s a win-win. I get homemade bread and a fire that way. :-)

What I have been thinking about the outdoor fireplace is that they can be really difficult, and potentially very expensive to install. Or to be more accurate, high-end fully custom outdoor fireplaces can be expensive. Let me explain.

The Calore2G is a wonderful, high-end modular fireplace kit. It gives the homeowner, landscaper or mason the “structure” they need to build a perfect outdoor fireplace, while still allowing for virtually unlimited customization. The interior of the firebox is lined with real firebrick, while the outside of the fireplace can be finished with stucco, stone, brick, or whatever the builder wants. The Calore2G makes it easy to get the shape and proportions of the fireplace just right—all you have to do is stack the Calore2G components and you are done. There isn’t anything to go wrong. The Calore2G can also save you a lot of time and money, by eliminating the complicated work of building the “core” of the fireplace.

But what about a customer who wants a real outdoor fireplace—but who does not have the space or budget for a fully custom outdoor fireplace. I think there is large, un-served market for a fireplace that is easy to set up and affordable, and is a whole lot nicer than a fire pit, a metal firebox or a chiminea. You know, a real outdoor fireplace. Something that looks like it could have been custom built by a local mason, but doesn’t cost an arm or a leg.

I think the best way to tackle this challenge is to analyze layers. With the Calore2G, Forno Bravo provides the central layer and the inner firebrick layer, while the customer provides the outer decorative layer. Put different, the inner layer can be seen by the customer and faces the actual fire; the inner layer provides the form, the shape and the structure; and the outer layer is the decorative face. Each layer plays a vital role.

In terms of installation (and skill level, difficulty and time investment), the Calore2G central layer is stacked, while the inner and outer layers are installed by hand. It is the “installed by hand” elements that give a fully custom fireplaces some of its character and appeal, but that are responsible for driving up the cost and complexity of the project.

The key to building an affordable outdoor fireplace that looks great, looks real, and can be set up by someone with zero building skills is to compress the three layers of a custom fireplace into a single component. And to do it in such way that disguises the fact that the compression ever took place. The key is to hide the fact that the fireplace was not installed on-site in discrete layers.

There are other issues to address, including weight, packaging, shipping and materials, but those can be resolved.

Stay tuned for some additional thoughts on innovating the outdoor fireplace.

Seasoned. Or Aged.

Writing about seasoned wood got me thinking about the Italian and English words for aging, or seasoning. Italian uses stagionato for cheeses—seasoned. A quattro stagioni pizza is a four season pizza, with olives, artichokes, mushrooms and ham. This list of toppings comes from our friend in Florence, Kyle Phillips, the Italian food editor for About.com.

Photo from The Italian Dish Blog.

On the other hand, in English, we use aged for cheese, and seasoned for wood. hah. I don’t know the correct Italian word for seasoned wood, though I am guess that it is also stagionato. I’m also not entirely clear whether the correct word is stagione (season) or stagioni (seasons). In English, we would say four season (singular) pizza, not four seasons pizza.

One last observation. The Internet is an interesting place. I clicked on one of the Google search results for “quattro stagione pizza, which took me to a Wolfgang Puck pizza recipe from The Food Network. The interesting part is that the recipe calls for Fontina and Parmesan cheese and clams as toppings, and honey and olive oil in the dough. That is just so funky.

I’m sure it’s a really nice pizza in its own way. But Quattro Stagione?

Proper Seasoning. Seasoned Wood That Is.

I don’t think you can overstate just how important dry wood is to an enjoyable session of wood-fired cooking. Damp wood is hard (dare I say impossible) to light, it smokes when it burns (that’s because the fire needs to bake all the moisture out of the wood before it actually combusts) and it takes much longer to fire your oven for cooking. It can take all of the fun out of your afternoon. Burning damp wood can also be dangerous on the long run, building up creosote inside your chimney that can catch fire. If your oven is installed indoors, or if it has a long run of chimney pipe, remember to have your chimney regularly inspected by a professional for creosote build up.

Well seasoned wood lights bast, burns clear and hot and can bring your Forno Bravo oven up to pizza baking temperature remarkably quickly. For a visual example, check out our YouTube video on the “top down” fire building method—where we build a blazing fire in a couple of minutes and fully fire a Primavera oven in less than 20 minutes. That gets you baking Pizza Napoletana in about the same amount of time we used to spend lighting charcoal bricks in our Weber grills. :-)

But it all comes back to having well seasoned wood.

The tricky part is that freshly cut wood can have up to 50% water content, where seasoned wood has water content below 20%. Like a lot of things, such as oven temperature, you can either manage your wood by feel, or with a gadget. For example, many of us enjoy using an infrared thermometer to check our oven temperature at various spots—even though we have learned to do a good job of estimating oven temperature by sight and feel. And the same is true of firewood moisture. You can use a fun little gadget that tells you the water content of your wood.

I just bought this moisture sensor for $20 on Amazon.com and I will be doing some tests and posting some photos on how well it works. This should be fun.

Made in the USA

Every Forno Bravo oven (other than the Artigiano) is made in our own factory in Marina, CA (Northern California). I am extremely proud of our manufacturing team and their commitment to high quality, American-based manufacturing. Over the past three years we have continually added new manufacturing personnel, capacity, capability, equipment, and experise. In terms of we pure real estate, we have tripled our footprint in a little more than two years. We have made thousands of really great pizza ovens.

Beyond the basic numbers, such as square feet and head count, we have also developed a large number of “softer” assets. We have improved our refractory technology by introducing the new, third generation of FB Castable (you can read more about that here), the material we use to cast our oven domes and vents (that is made using raw materials manufactured in the American midwest), and we have developed a great deal of technology and expertise that no one will ever see—in the equipment, molds and processes that we use to physically manufacture our products. We are constantly improving the way we cast our products, resulting in smoother surfaces, sharper edges, fewer air pockets, and oven pieces that fit together tightly and accurately (and don’t have unattractive grinder marks).

Plus, we do all of our wonderful finish stucco work, paint and glazes, and all of own metal work in house, and the craftsmanship of our stands and enclosures is excellent. Just beautiful.

Friday pizza party
Andiamo prototype

Many of our ovens are tested to UL and NSF standards, and our factory is inspected by the Intertek Testing Laboratories on a regular basis. Also, we work hard to be a good corporate citizen, and we provide our employees with medical insurance and accrued Personal Time Off (PTO). There has been a great deal of attention in the media over the decline of the U.S. manufacturing base, and of course small manufacturers like Forno Bravo are dwarfed by losses in the heavy industrial manufacturing sectors, but every bit helps.

One reason I want to share this is that, in general, I believe in business transparency. In the Internet age, I think a higher degree of transparency is the right strategy for businesses and it is better for our customers and community members. After all, Forno Bravo is the company that published the free Pompeii Oven eBook—to take the mystery out of pizza ovens and wood-fired cooking. How many companies would go out of their way to show you how to not buy their product? haha. In the days before Forno Bravo and the Pompeii eBook, pizza ovens were extremely expensive in the U.S. and it was very difficult to build a real brick oven in your backyard. I experienced it first hand. I am equally proud of the role that Forno Bravo have played in shedding light on the pizza oven market and helping drive costs down and sales volumes up.

I am also writing this post on a more practical level. We have a couple of small competitors in the market who seem to think that it is in their best interest to spread mis-information on Forno Bravo. If you have talked with other pizza oven companies recently, you will know who they are, and you know that they will tell you that the Forno Bravo ovens are made in China. Now I am a really competitive guy (heck, I am a nationally ranked marathon runner) and I really like winning—but I don’t think lying is the right way to win. It’s like cheating in sports, and at some point you get caught. It’s also pretty offensive to our production manager and our team. So, the next time someone tells you that Forno Bravo ovens are made in China, you should tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves.

I also think about it this way; if some of our competitors are willing to lie to you about my company and where we manufacture our products, what else are they willing to not tell you the truth about?

But I don’t want to end this post on a sour note. We have come a far way since Forno Bravo was founded eight years ago, and the real winner has been you—the consumer. We have significantly increased the quality and lowered the cost of modular pizza oven kits, we have introduced new assembled oven designs, ovens on wheels and ovens that you can set up without any tools, and we are on the verge of introducing an oven that two guys can bring to a party. It’s been a great ride and we are just getting started.

More choices, lower prices and better quality. That sounds like a good market dynamic to me.