Summer Home Update: Outdoor Kitchen

Follow this guide to a five-star backyard that will entertain well into fall

Wicker chairs surround a table next to an outdoor grill.
This year-round outdoor kitchen by Wayzata-based Stonewood, LLC, features a built-in counter ($4,500) with granite top ($2,000); exhaust hood ($3,600-$4,200); medium Big Green Egg; and custom furniture ($750 per chair) by Plymouth-based Studio M Interiors.

photo by spacecrafting


Summer’s finally here! And HGTV has convinced Americans, even in four-season climates like Minnesota, that they can do more than park a grill on their patio for outdoor dining—a lot more. Imagine: counters, cabinetry, a fireplace, a stainless-steel refrigerator, grill, overhead pergola—all waiting just a step out the back door.

“Minnesotans start to get 50-degree days and get crazy excited to go outside,” says landscape designer Jim Sweeney, of Mom’s Design Build in Shakopee. “We understand these moments are limited, so there is a hypervigilance to be in these spaces.”

The idea has taken off especially over the past five years, and now homeowners can build the fantasy for less: small outdoor add-ons that retain airy convertibility without breaking $150,000. But even large-scale patio projects have become more common, often as alternative investments to pricy vacations, says landscape manager Tom Dahlmeir, of Woodbury firm Ispiri. “Homeowners may just keep their kids at home and focus on having a good time over the weekends,” he says.

In Minnesota, we can reasonably expect to use outdoor-entertainment spaces for three seasons. But new ideas in patio furniture, infrared heating, and tiling (say hello to durable, timeless porcelain, says Sweeney) mean the elements don’t have to dampen your enthusiasm. “How long does it take you and your family to eat dinner?” HOM Furniture merchandising director Kyle Johansen poses. “About 45 minutes, right? But how long are you going to sit outside and enjoy the night?” For many Minnesotans, a whole weekend sounds about right.

So, how to get started on a project? First, consider how the space will serve those using it. Instead of hiding the grilling station away from the pool and entertaining area, the trend is to put it at the center. “Grillmasters have a better view of the backyard and the activities,” Sweeney says. “While they’re doing their work, they can also be a part of the bigger activity, or feel engaged in the space.”

Dahlmeir stresses that every project—starting at $15,000 and reaching into six digits—is different. Pricing depends on accessibility for contractors. Firms sit down with homeowners to pick out products, countertop colors, and stone that fit not only the house but the budget, too.

Here are some key features and accessories for a five-star backyard:

An outdoor kitchen complete with stainless-steel appliances built into Fond du Lac stone and granite top counters.
Stainless-steel appliances built into the Fond du Lac stone and granite-top counters of this Ispiri-designed space include (left to right) a 36-inch grill (around $3,000 retail), storage drawers (around $1,300 retail per unit), a refrigerator (around $2,500 retail), and a trash receptacle (around $850 retail) by DCS Appliances.

photo by troy thies photography


Refrigerator and beer taps

Trends for indoor-kitchen refrigeration are moving outdoors. To maintain the sight lines of your backyard, you might consider a waist-high, stainless-steel refrigerator that pulls out drawer-style. Other options include a double-tap tower unit for multiple kegs, a wine chiller, an ice chest, and other discreet accents to fill out your outdoor bar setup. With the right coolers and counters, you can serve cocktails with all the garnishes, and without ever having to leave the patio.

Grill or Oven (or both)

“We’ve done countless outdoor kitchens, and there’s not one that’s like the next,” Dahlmeir says. “Some people want a grill, some people want a smoker, some people want a pizza oven.”

Once you decide how you want to cook, the amount you invest can vary just as much. Dahlmeir encourages consumers to think ahead: If you spend $200-$300 on a grill, you’re going to replace it about five times in your life. “Next thing you know, you’re at $1,500,” he says. “Why not just spend $1,500 once on a beautiful grill that’s going to last you a lifetime?”

As a portable option, the Big Green Egg has graced Minnesota patios for more than two decades. Based on the domed cooking vessels of China’s Qin dynasty, its design has inspired numerous knock-offs. They’re the utilitarian pick for backyard entertainers all over: aesthetically notorious, functionally unmatched.

Counters

The minimum amount of counter space  for an outdoor kitchen often measures roughly 2-by-3-feet—as a place to set out plates and make final preparations. Options open up as you expand: to build in a grill, to attach a stone pizza oven, or to provide a nook for your Big Green Egg.

Think about storage, too: “The great thing about sealed [weatherproof] cabinetry outside, of course, is now you can keep plates that are protected from both the elements and bugs,” Sweeney says.

Wraparound counters (often granite-top or a durable raw-material blend called Dekton) can help define a no-expenses-spared outdoor kitchen where space constraints are few. Installing a sink—especially with an exterior wall involved—prolongs the build, as designers must figure out how to tie into the underground water source, and it can seriously up the cost.

“We have to check with city ordinances to figure out how we get the water out there,” Dahlmeir says. “And then waste water’s a big thing, too. There’s a lot to it.”

A pergola looms over a built-in stone pizza oven in a backyard.
The built-in stone pizza oven ($5,000-$10,000) adds a bucolic touch to this outdoor kitchen by Hugo-based Outdoor Innovations Landscaping, while wraparound counters ($55-$130 per square foot) and a red-cedar, 24-by-24-foot pergola (over $43,000) create a room-like feel.

photo by steve kjelland photography


Pergola

“More and more people want a pergola,” Sweeney says. “It helps create the feeling of a room and brings the space down to a human scale.”

The sky isn’t the limit, however. What you can do depends again on city ordinances. If your pergola is above a grill, you might need to use metal—usually steel or aluminum. If it’s wood, leave it for a year before staining so it settles after shrinking and swelling with the Minnesota weather.

With a louvered pergola—where the overhead slats open and close like blinds—you can adjust for shade or, in the case of rain, create a water-tight oasis beneath. To avoid installing an eyesore heating system, you can put infrared heaters up among the rafters, too.

Lounge chairs surround a fireplace in an elegant and modern outdoor space.
This Golden Valley outdoor kitchen, by Minneapolis-based Aspen Builders & Remodelers, features a 5-by-12-foot fire pit (around $14,000) surrounded by Loll Adirondack Chairs by Duluth-based Loll Designs ($456-615 each), with a custom-designed lounge space ($5,000 per sofa) closer to the house.

photo by spacecrafting


Outdoor fireplace

Put some lounge chairs around a tabletop fire pit (perfect for perching wine glasses and hors d’oeuvres; gas-lit to avoid spitting ash), and you and your friends will ensconce yourselves there for hours. The grandeur of an outdoor fire—whether it’s a natural wood burner, a gas pit, or an entire fireplace—turns any backyard into a mini resort, especially near a pool or lake. “These are huge,” Dahlmeir says—but: “Codes are changing on these things all the time, based on city, proximity to neighbors, lots of stuff. Be very aware of where you are.”

Seating

You might want to stay put around the fire, but if you’re eating outside, Johansen reminds consumers, “You can’t pull a recliner up to a dining-room table.” St. Louis Park-based Yardbird offers sleek outdoor dining sets, with chairs made of comfortable, weather-proof Sunbrella sling. 360Five Designs, a new firm in New Prague, puts a similarly modern twist on zero-maintenance, recycled-material outside setups.

Yardbird's Langdon Swivel Chair.
Yardbird’s Langdon Swivel Chair combines soft Sunbrella-fabric cushions with high-density polyethylene wicker for a high-end blend of indoor comfort and outdoor durability. Available at yardbird.com, $649

photo by yardbird


Still, there’s a reason outdoor seating has trended away from dining furniture—often straight-backed, potentially uncomfortable after a while. “Deep seating” provides a less-formal area for unwinding feet from the dinner table. Think: sofas and love seats with big, weather-resistant cushions. “People are looking at it less and less as a patio—a concrete slab with a dining table on it—and more as an extension of their actual home,” Johansen says.


Hot Property

If you don’t have a lot of money, space, or time, here are a few smart options to upgrade grilling season in style.

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