If you find yourself hanging around BBQ competition teams with any sort of regularity, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard about Humphrey’s Smokers. Built to last and hand-crafted by Chad Humphrey and his team at Humphrey’s up in West Newfield, Maine, these smokers are regarded among the best of the best insulated cookers on the market.
I had a chance to catch up with Chad Humphrey on a phone call last week to ask him about how Humphrey’s Smokers got started and what he thinks is making them so popular. I think you’ll enjoy reading through the transcript of our phone call.
First, here are some details about Humphrey’s Smokers:
Company: Humphrey’s BBQ
Owners: Chad and Nicole Humphrey
Building Smokers Since: 2012
Interview with Chad Humphrey of Humphrey’s Smokers
Kevin Sandridge: How did Humphrey’s Smokers get started?
Chad Humphrey: About 5 years ago, we met some people on the BBQ circuit because we used to do some wood chips and chunks and a few other grilling products for which we’d won some wholesale trade show awards. We set up our booth at the Rock’n Ribfest over in Merrimack, NH and met a few of the teams and started talking to them. They asked us if we could do some metalwork on their cookers that were having some issues and had some rot and stuff. We said sure, and from then on we started fixing up cookers from New England down to New York.
Word spread, and we started to work on smokers from all over the country. People would freight them in to us and we’d rebuild them and freight them back. Some of these cookers had sentimental value so folks wanted to keep them operational rather than buying new ones. This lead to us working on cookers from one manufacturer to another and before too long we’d worked on pretty much all of the BBQ pit styles and manufacturers out there.
Along the way, people started telling us “You know, I wish they would do this with the smokers or that with smokers,” and we really listened to what the customers had to say about the features and functionality they wanted to see. Then, BBQ manufacturers started contacting us to ask questions about certain fabrication processes or what they could do better and one day – it just clicked. We decided we need to build our own BBQ Smokers.
So, in 2012 we built our first Humphrey’s BBQ smoker for use in competition ourselves. People started seeing it and one thing led to another and the brand just took off. Since then we’ve hooked up with the right retailers and consumers. Everything just clicked. The people who bought our smokers started having really great results on the competition BBQ circuit and that brought us to where we are today.
KS: Cool. So you guys start working on and repairing pretty much any and every style of BBQ smoker out there – from offset smokers, vertical cabinets and gravity fed smokers, and the like. Right?
CH: You name it, we worked on it. We worked on home-built models, Lang reverse-flow smokers, rebuilt a few Jambos, even Klose BBQ Pits, J&Rs, and Cookshack models. Even restaurant cookers were calling for repairs. We’d travel and work on cookers at their restaurant location, we were really busy. The good thing about this time is that it really gave us some insight into how all of these different types of cookers work, and I think that really shows up in the smokers we build today.
KS: Man, that’s a real education you guys picked up. What are some of the things you noticed most when working on these different cookers, and how did you decide on the type of smokers you build today?
CH: Let me answer your second question first. The way we decided on the kind of smoker we wanted to build was this. We love cooking BBQ. If you have seen a picture of me, you can tell that we like to eat a lot of BBQ. So, I love BBQ food but I live in Maine, and we didn’t want to deal with a cooker that I had to constantly keep an eye on, add fuel to, and that was affected by temperature. So, we definitely wanted to go with an insulated cabinet-style unit for our original Humphrey’s Smoker. That’s where our need was personally, and we learned by talking to people like Bill Gillespie and others, that this is where competition BBQ was and still is today with the vertical cabinets.
So we knew we wanted to go down the vertical cabinet-style BBQ smoker road. Our facility, with the tooling and equipment that we had, set us up to go into manufacturing these smokers with ease.
KS: Ok, now that I put two and two together in terms of where you’re located and what you guys are building, it makes total sense. No fun tending the fire in cold weather! So, once you set your mind on building vertical cabinet-style smokers, what lessons did you bring to the table in terms of how you wanted to build these smokers compared to what you’d seen out there?
CH: You know, my wife Nicole and I, we sat down and looked at what everybody else was using for materials, and we looked at what was going on with them. So for instance, if you lived on the coast, why was your smoker rotting out in a couple of years. So what did salt water do to it, what do hard winters do to it, what does dropping it off a trailer do to it, and so on. We really took all of these factors into consideration as we started mapping out the specifics of what a Humphrey’s Smoker would look like and be made of. Of course, we also had to keep price point in mind – being careful not to price ourselves out of the market in terms of what someone might be willing to pay.
Ultimately, we took our original design and scaled it back a bit to keep costs in line, but we kept true to our desire to build the best-made smokers out there. We went with heavier gauge materials on the skins and a welded tube chassis that you find in our Battle Boxes and cookers larger than that.
We do a lot of work for some industry specific clients, and the insulation that we use in our smokers is a proprietary blend that one of our clients has given us permission to use. This is a real high-end insulation that’s anti-fungal and has all these really great food grade properties, but also the K and R values are outstanding. What this all means for the customer is that if it’s 35 degrees outside and you open the door, your cooker is going to bounce back real fast because its got a lot of heat retention. You’re also going to see very efficient fuel consumption, so you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel during the night during competitions. So we wanted to bring all of these factors together and put them into a BBQ Smoker that someone wanted to buy.
Author’s Note: I didn’t really understand K and R factors. Chad explained that this is industry terminology in insulation values. R value is the rating that insulation you have in your home will be rated at in terms of heat loss and retention. A more advance scale is the K value and is used in industrial applications.
KS: So I’m getting that durability and performance were key factors for you guys from the get go. I’ve seen nightmare unfold at competitions where a cooker goes overboard off the porch of a cook trailer, and I can tell you that durability is surely of prime importance for competitors. I’m guessing that the roll bars you guys use helps your smokers maintain functionality even if such an event occurs, right?
CH: Yes, the internal cage of our smokers is a structure much like a roll cage in a race car. It’s designed to take a beating, but it also keeps things square. Over time, certain lighter-duty units using only sheet metal style construction can begin to warp or lose their shape a bit. Things just start to shift around and sag from being jarred around every weekend and transported across thousands of miles from competition to competition. All of this movement and use takes a toll on units, so our internal roll bar cage keeps things square, keeps doors closing tightly, etc.
We have had customers lose our smokers off of trailers. One customer in particular swerved to avoid a deer, his ratchet straps broke, and his cooker went off his trailer. Due to our roll bar design, the smoker only suffered cosmetic damage. He filed an insurance claim, as the smoker had been attached to his vehicle and sent us the unit. We put a new skin on it and it was as good as new. The internal structure of the cooker was still real solid.
KS: Wow. That’s solid construction for you for sure. Since you mentioned smoker components changing shape over time or getting out of square, I wanted to ask you how Humphrey’s Smokers deals with the issue of the top hatch leaking in some of the other units I’ve seen. This seems to be a battle nearly all gravity fed smoker users face. What do you guys do to make sure this hatch stays nice and sealed shut over the long-term?
CH: That is one of the toughest parts of a gravity fed smoker, because you need an outstanding seal there or you could end up with a back-draft fire or what have you. We use a real heavy plate on the top of our hatch, which keeps down the warping. As long as it doesn’t get dented, that with a quality gasket and latch system will keep a really good seal.
We looked at what was available for latches and went with what we felt was the highest quality latch for the money. So we put that on there. We use a real high-end gasket that we purchase direct from the manufacturer, so we know exactly what we’re getting quality standard wise at all times. That in conjunction with a heavy gauge steel keeps our chute sealing system tight. Over time, of course, your gasket will wear – as it is a consumable. We stay in touch with everyone who buys our smokers and advise them on how to replace their gaskets as needed. Remaining high-touch with the people who purchase Humphrey’s smokers is, I feel, a huge part of our success, and I don’t ever want to lose that side of what we do. In fact, we’ve recently hired a person to help us manage customer care and support as we grow larger as a company.
KS: That’s cool about you wanting to remain connected with the cook teams and home owners who buy your smokers. Do you guys use social media to stay in touch with them?
CH: We sure do. I get emails like one from the other day where a guy who bought one of our smokers cooked racks of ribs his daughter requested for her birthday party, and they turned out great. That’s the stuff that keeps me going. We also love it when we get photos of people using our smokers or seeing them out at competitions.
KS: You mentioned the latches you guys use. I’ve helped out guys cooking on gravity fed units where getting the doors closed when you have only one arm or hand free can be a little bit of a pain. In some cases, you almost have to set what you’re holding down in order to then go back and make sure the doors are closed and latched tightly. What if anything have you done to make closing and sealing your doors easier?
CH: I know exactly what you mean, and we’ve taken great steps to avoid this problem. On most of our smokers until you get up to the big whole hog cookers, we use what are called slam latches. What these latches do is provide a positive locking closing system. The tumbler inside the latch has to go up over a ramp. Once you slam the door, the latch holds tight. It’s that simple. We build our doors to take a beating, so we encourage our customers to really slam them shut.
It’s funny. We have customers come up and visit us to look at our smokers. They come in and try to be so gentle with the doors. Using just gentle pushes they see the door won’t shut, so I have to tell them to give it a good slam so they can see how easy it is to close them tightly. I usually grab onto the door, whip it shut, and they then hear that deep, solid “thud,” and know it’s shut tight. I tell them that it’s designed to do that.
KS: Another issue with gravity fed smokers I wanted to talk to you about when the charcoal bridges near the bottom of where it lands at the bottom of the chute – thus blocking any more charcoal from dropping down. How do you guys at Humphrey’s Smokers deal with this issue.
CH: Bridging is something we talked to a lot of teams about when designing our reverse-flow, water cooker, gravity feed cookers. We looked at chute construction – whether to go round, square, or put things in the chute itself to make it work better and not have jams of bridges. We decided to go with a round chute in our cookers. We built a special shaker grate for the bottom, and between the round chute and the shaker grate – the feedback we’ve received from our customers has been great. They’re really happy. They’re not having any major issues with bridging – whether using briquettes or lump charcoal.
KS: You mentioned that your smokers are gravity fed, reverse-flow, water cookers. Can you step me through exactly how they work in case some folks aren’t familiar with them?
CH: Sure. In our best-selling series of cookers, which are our traditional vertical boxes, you have a firebox on sliding rails in the bottom. You light the charcoal, add your wood chunks, etc and slide the box in. You add water to your water pan, and what happens is that oxygen comes in through a vent in the side of the cooker, hits the firebox, and moves up through channels going up through the side and back of our smokers that have special baffles in them to give a twist on how the air moves through. The smoke and air rise to the top of the cooker, reflects off the top, then goes right down through the meat into the cooking chamber – exiting out through the bottom of the smoker right by the water pan into the chimney section. This is what I mean by our smoker having that reverse flow design, and the water making it a water cooker.
KS: I understand that you have a twist on the water pan you guys offer with your smokers that makes clean up a lot easier, is that right?
CH: Yes, we offer a couple different styles of our water pan. We have a traditional one that sets in like they do in nearly all other cabinet-style gravity fed cookers. A lot of folks go with that one. We also offer a special slide out water pan that really makes removing the water pan at the end of a cook a breeze. It’s no fun removing a water pan from a hot cooker at the end of a competition when its full of grease at 200 degrees. You just want to avoid it if you can, or at least make it easier to deal with for people. So, we built a water pan on a slide rail that has a built-in heat diverter. You can slide the water pan right out, dump it with ease, throw it in your dish washer if you want to, and put it right back in your cooker.
It’s important to note that folks need to let us know if they want a slide out water pan when they order their cookers, as the configuration for this option is a little different from our standard smoker.
The other good part of our system is that you can take the water pan out, and a lot of competition BBQers do this when cooking food for the ancillary categories like Anything But – you know, baked goods and stuff like that. When you cook without the water pan, you pretty much turn our smoker into a reverse flow, dry cooker that works just like a convection oven. Our cookers are incredibly stable when used in this fashion. You can take them up to 300 or 350 degrees with ease, remain within the rules by using charcoal and wood, and produce amazing results.
KS: What are the different levels of smokers you sell from what you might call your beginner or novice model to the more advanced versions?
CH: For people just starting out cooking with cabinet smokers who might be on a limited budget, we offer a smaller cooker called the Half Pint that’s built a little bit differently from our roll bar enforced models. It’s more like a sheet metal cooker and starts at $995. The Half Pint is still a fully insulated, reverse-flow cooker and it’s really popular with backyard BBQers. Competition cooks also like the Half Pint for cooking their chicken category. We have a lot of guys buy them for this purpose that have seen great results.
From there we move up to a model called the Weeble for $1295. The Weeble uses the same construction as the Half Pint, but it can hold full sheet pans.
Our number one selling Humphrey’s Smoker is our Battle Box. It’s the start of our Extreme Duty series coming in at $1,530. It’s got the tubular reinforced roll cage chassis in it. A lot of competition teams will buy two Battle Boxes and do their competitions out of them. This is the unit that Ed and Ginny Roach of Fire Down Below BBQ Team use two of. They’re great people, just a super nice couple.
In many cases, teams will buy one Battle Box and continue cooking on whatever they had before as well. Then, usually within about six months to a year they’ll either buy another Battle Box or our Pint unit. That’s been the trend. We have a lot of repeat customers who have two to three of our units.
Shane Draper and Mike Owens with Draper’s BBQ have a few of our units, Paul Grant with Slippery Pete’s BBQ uses our smokers, Stephan Franklin of Simply Marvelous has made the switch over – he’s got a few of our units. In fact, Stephan switched his whole catering unit over to our cookers, and he also uses them in competition now. If you know about Simply Marvelous, then you know they’re linked up with Big Poppa Smokers and Sterling Ball. Sterling has a Battle Box unit as part of his cook trailer now as well.
KS: So you got the Battle Box as a very popular option. Where do people usually go next with Humphrey’s Smokers if they want to go bigger?
CH: A lot of times if they have a Battle Box or two, or maybe a Battle Box and a Pint, people will move up to a Qube’d Pint for $3,250 or a Qube’d Pint Plus at $3,950. Those are two models that are really popular now. They hold full sheet pans. You can cook two sheet pans side by side on the Qube’d Pint Plus, and that’s really popular as teams want the ability to cook four racks of ribs all on one cooking rack with really good spacing and air flow – which our larger units give you the ability to do.
We’ve noticed a trend as well where more and more BBQ competitors are starting to turn what they do into sources for additional income either by small-scale vending or catering. So, these larger units offer dual use for both competitions and vending or catering.
KS: Absolutely with you on that last point. I know several teams who have used vending and catering to great effect in terms of recouping the cost of their smoker upgrade. I notice that you guys have a few variations on racks you provide with your smokers — specifically the racks made up of round bars. What prompted the difference there?
CH: The round bar racks were introduced by something we did for a rib vendor we work with. He wanted something where ribs will slide right off the rack, have really good structural strength, and be easy to clean so the health inspector will like it. So I built this all stainless steel, heavy-duty round bar rack and he loaded his cooker with them from top to bottom.
He likes it because he has one of the rib spatulas we make, the really long ones, which are more like rib shovels. He just goes right in and picks his ribs up off from the rack and keeps rotating out ribs cooking non-stop.
KS: Going back to what you shared about making sure you remain in close contact with your customers. Tell me more about what you guys at Humphrey’s Smokers do to keep the connections up and running via social media.
CH: We maintain our Facebook Page and Twitter Page where people post pictures of their Humphrey’s smokers or just mention us using #TeamHumphreys. (View #TeamHumphreys on Twitter and View #TeamHumphreys on Facebook as well.)
We also maintain a Humphrey’s Smokers User Group on Facebook, which is a closed group. This group is great because people there share tips on what they’re doing with our smokers, recipes they use, good deals on different meats and supplies in the areas where they live, etc. It’s a great place for folks who may be experiencing a little bit of a steeper learning curve, as they can get a lot of help from other members of the group.
We also maintain email contact with customers, and we find that Facebook messenger is a great tool for people to sue with us if they have questions.
KS: Man, you’ve given us a ton of great information about what you, Nicole, and the rest of your team are doing up there in Maine with Humphrey’s Smokers. Is there anything else you would like my readers to know or any parting thoughts you’d like to leave with?
CH: Just that we are out there competing as Humphrey’s smokers on the circuit to make sure we never lose sight of what our customers want and what they’re experiencing with the cookers they use. While we always want to do well at competitions, I’m more so out there for the social aspect of it. We love it when people come and talk to us – and we go out and socialize with everybody as well. So, we’re competitors, we’re food vendors, and we know what you’re looking for. More specifically, we understand what’s out there and what you might be struggling with. This is the stuff we try to get right with every product that we build. We’re always open to suggestions from customers on what they’d like to see next. If somebody comes up and says they’d like to see something new, it might just show up on our next year’s model. I never want our designs or our standards to become stagnant. That’s very important to us. We always want to keep innovating.