SALT LAKE CITY — Traeger Grills CEO Jeremy Andrus said he bears no ill will toward members of the Traeger family who, now two sales removed from the company, went to work last year for a competing pellet grill company.
But, Andrus does have a problem with the Traeger name, some iconic branding images and a number of design characteristics unique to the company being used in ways he believes are blatant violations of Traeger Grill’s intellectual property rights.
“Joe and Brian Traeger are free to earn a living by working for Dansons or any other company so long as they abide by the terms of our agreement,” Andrus said in a statement. “However, they are currently doing exactly what they agreed not to do — and what they were paid millions not to do — which is to use their names, likeness and reputations to confuse consumers, undermine the Traeger Grills brand and harm our company.
“We can no longer stand by while Joe and Brian Traeger violate our agreements and promote Dansons’ grills as if they were genuine Traegers.”
To that end, Traeger Grills has filed civil lawsuits against both Dansons, the maker of Pit Boss and Louisiana Grills, as well as Joe, Brian and Mark Traeger. The suits in Florida and Arizona allege that Dansons has been conducting a multiyear campaign to promote its grills as if they were Traegers, thereby confusing consumers and damaging Traeger Grills and its employees, according to the complaint.
Joe Traeger is the man credited with innovating the pellet grill, an outdoor cooker that uses processed, compressed wood pellets that feed a fire from an automated hopper. Traeger adapted the technique from pellet-fired wood stoves in the ’80s and went on to build a family-run business that sold for some $12.4 million in 2006 to a new corporate parent. According to the Traeger complaint, $9 million of that went to secure “the exclusive and perpetual right to use the Traeger name, likenesses and reputation in the wood pellet grill industry,” which transferred to Andrus and Trilantic Partners when they purchased the company in 2014.
Besides claims of similarity in features found on Traeger grills and grills made by Dansons’ brands, the complaint also details images used of a white barn in Oregon with the Traeger name on it that has since become part of the company’s branding imagery.
A photo featuring Joe and Brian Traeger, along with Dansons executives Dan Thiessen, Jeff Thiessen and Jordan Thiessen, was posted in a marketing release on the Dansons website along with the announcement of the Traegers’ hiring. The release also included statements that “the first pellet grill was born in 1983 in the signature Traeger Barn, which still sits as a landmark in Mount Angel, Oregon,” and “In this partnership, Traeger will be developing new pellet grilling products alongside Pit Boss founder and pellet grill innovator, Dan Thiessen.”
The Traeger complaint alleges the statements, as well as use of the images, are clear violations of the company’s intellectual property rights.
“The clear intent of these images, together with the misleading statements in the marketing release, was to confuse consumers by suggesting that plaintiff, Traeger Grills, was in some way working with Dansons to develop and market pellet grills,” the complaint reads. “This decidedly is not the case. Regardless, the use of Joe’s and Brian’s images in Dansons’ marketing release is barred by Joe’s and Brian’s agreements to assign their likenesses to Traeger Grills for its exclusive use in marketing itself and its pellet grill products.”
Dansons did not respond to the Deseret News’ emailed requests for comment, but the company has an undated statement posted on its website about the Traeger lawsuits, which were filed in July.
“We deny all claims made by Traeger LLC, as they are false and unfounded,” wrote Dansons President Jeff Thiessen. “We will vigorously defend Dansons to protect our character and reputation. Joe and Brian Traeger were hired in 2018 based on their personal talent, passion and experience in the grilling industry. They brought fresh ideas and concepts that we were happy to engage, and they have become a valued part of the Dansons family. With the addition of Joe Traeger to the Product Development Team, we are also excited to launch the Founders Series, featuring a new and innovative value proposition.”
Since acquiring the company, Andrus and his team have grown Traeger’s annual revenues from about $70 million in 2014, to over $400 million currently.
Andrus, a BYU grad who also has an MBA from Harvard Business School, has a stellar record of turning consumer products companies into behemoths. He spoke to the Deseret News for a Traeger Grills profile in 2017.
Back in 2005, Andrus joined Park City-based headphone maker Skullcandy, a business launched in 2003 by Rick Alden, and helped grow the company from less than $1 million in annual revenues to almost $300 million in sales in 80 countries. Along the way, he took the company public.
After eight years with Skullcandy and ready for a change, Andrus joined Boston-area private equity firm Solamere Capital, a company with Utah ties through founders Tagg Romney, Eric Scheuermann and Spencer Zwick. But that would turn out to be a mere stepping stone to Traeger, which, according to Andrus, had a little-recognized but highly passionate following.
”I was doing customer research and had a guy tell me, ‘Traeger changed my life,’” Andrus said. “I looked up from my notes and asked him to say it again. ... I’d never heard this about a consumer product and was not expecting to hear it about a backyard barbecue.
“This brand is an absolute gem, the fact that it was so small relative to its potential and had so much history, and second-generation ownership of people who loved it so much, showed me it was meaningful opportunity,” he said.
Since acquiring the company, Andrus and company have expanded the line of grills, and have upgraded some models with features like smartphone monitoring/control and grilling automation.