The Eating Life: Tennessee's Five Star builds ranges for home, but with industrial strength

Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 8:05pm
By Nicki Pendleton Wood, City Paper correspondent
0304 Five Star stove topper.jpg

(Stephanie Schamban for SouthComm)

 

For a certain kind of kitchen enthusiast, a stove available in cobalt blue or wasabi green might raise suspicions about its seriousness of purpose. So to clarify: Brown Stove Works doesn’t build wasabi-green stoves.

They also don’t make dishwashers. Or ice makers. Or blenders.

Brown, a Cleveland, Tenn., manufacturer, builds ranges and cooktops. There are three finishes: white, black and stainless. You can add brass trim if you’re that kind of person. And before you ask, there’s no matching refrigerator.

The company may not be a household name, but it calls itself the largest, and also the smallest, privately held appliance manufacturer in the country. In the southeast corner of the state a few miles from the Smokies, this little company has been making stoves for more than 70 years.

Brown brand stoves are economical affairs — their biggest market is local housing authorities. The company’s other brand, its flagship, is the Five Star range. Solid, sturdy and functional, a Five Star is a thing of beauty for cooks whose kitchen is the playground. And the biggest surprise is how few Tennesseans know of it, even 22 years after its introduction.

It began with yuppies. Remember them? The booming 1980s, rising tide lifting all boats, extra money? Recreational cooks with ambition and spare cash were turning to commercial ranges to get the features they wanted.

It was an impressive sight: a hulking, outsize silver steel beast menacing a normal-size kitchen, heat radiating from its uninsulated sides, the open pilot light flickering with danger, its heavy, unmarked knobs like a secret handshake. They were objects of envy, and wonder, and status.

Brown saw the trend and, according to company spokeswoman Jenny Cooper Rumble, “We were already building stoves and wanted to move into the pro-style residential market.”

The Brown engineering team designed a beefier stove with thicker-gauge metal, larger knobs, grates and handles, a steel back-guard, high BTU and more. They dubbed the new line “Five Star.”

Nashville recipe developer and food stylist Mary Ann Fowlkes cooked and styled food photos (shot by renowned Nashville photographer John Guider) for the first Five Star sales brochure. She said the range perfectly filled a niche in the market.

“A lot of the higher-end ranges at the time were heavy and awkward and had massive BTUs, “Fowlkes said. “Five Star was built to be a crossover between commercial and home range,” she explained.

Brown advertised the Five Star a little but gradually left off, Rumble said. “I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, but it’s a saturated market. We’re just a really small, privately owned company without the resources to put into the big-budget advertising campaigns that some of our competitors do. We’d rather put those resources into building a quality product than a lot of advertising.” 

After just a couple of years in production, Five Star got noticed by Consumer Digest and awarded a “Best Buy” designation in 1994, then again in 1997, 1998 and 1999. A Five Star is still a bargain: The fully loaded 48-inch model sells for up to $5,000 less than a comparable Viking. A basic 30-inch all-gas Five Star is priced about $1,400 lower than other brands, or around $3,500.

Fowlkes bought a 48-inch Five Star and used it to teach cooking classes, style food and test recipes. She was especially grateful for the range during the ice storm of 1994, when parts of Nashville lost power for up to 10 days. “You had to light it with a match, but it still worked,” she said, cooking meals — and in the process warming the kitchen — for days until power returned. (Editor’s note: It’s not advisable to keep any oven on just to heat the house.)

 

 

What do you get with a Five Star oven? The roomy gas oven is fired by a flame broiler below, and convection keeps it circulating. Five Star offers several configurations of burners and griddle/grills, the latter made by Lodge Manufacturing of South Pittsburg, Tenn. Continuous grates let heavy pans slide smoothly among burners and are perfect for heating huge pans that cover more than one burner. Racks let baked goods cool or hold warm food under hot lights to stay warm. Many parts of the range, including the oven door of some models, are removable for cleaning. The smaller parts clean up nicely in the dishwasher. 

As for power, Five Star’s open burners deliver 15,000 British thermal units, and sealed burners offer up to 21,000 BTU, enough to blacken fish, stir-fry and roast peppers quickly.

How much BTU is enough is a discussion that rages in online threads, and usually it’s assumed that more is better. Viking (for instance) makes 30,000 BTU sealed burners, assuredly boiling water faster and keeping big batches of stir-fry from losing their crispness.

In practical terms, the BTU competition is fiercer at the low end: What you really want in a flame is low simmer, the grail of gas burners. At its introduction, Five Star was the only range offering a low simmer setting, about 350 to 400 BTU, Fowlkes said.

All in all, Five Star pretty well grants most wishes. An infrared broiler and a time-bake function might be nice, but then it would be a different product.

 

 

The Cleveland factory runs lean, building the stoves as they’re ordered by distributors, dealers and customers. A workweek is four 10-hour shifts, during which workers put together components built on site and elsewhere, including the Lodge griddle/grills. Brown doesn’t keep excess inventory on hand, so when the orders are all filled, workers stay home.

Matthew Brown, the founder’s great-grandson, is still involved with the Brown Stove Works. In fact, the small company feels as much like family as a company, Rumble said. Calling the company is like calling a friend — a live human, on site, always answers the phone. Need a part? Someone on the shop floor puts it into a box and mails it out. Repair problem? A tech gets on the line to talk about it. If the ailing stove is in Tennessee or Virginia or otherwise nearby, a tech might just jump in a truck and make a house call.

Accordingly, the Brown way of doing business is to plow its outreach efforts into building and maintaining dealer and distributor networks. The Southeast has the strongest distributor network, but shoppers as far away as California can find a dealer and go kick the tires on a Five Star.

Keeping dealers in the loop is a quaint method but it works: Several people interviewed for this story were pointed to Five Star by sales staff at appliance stores.

 

 

Five Star and Brown sales figures aren’t public, but Rumble said they’re just a fraction of the volume of bigger, more visible brands like Viking, GE Profile and Thermador. What’s a little company to do to compete?

The answer for Five Star was the dual-fuel oven. Introduced in 1997, Five Star’s killer app among serious home cooks turned out to be pairing a six-burner range with both an electric and a gas oven.

“By far the best-selling model is the 48-inch dual-fuel sealed-burner model,” Rumble said. “Five Star is the only brand that offers both a gas oven and electric oven in same unit. In that size [48-inch] and 60-inch, that is an option. It’s unique to the market and to cooking in general,” said Rumble.

Forty-eight to 60 inches of hard-working steel burners, broiler, grill and griddle with both an electric and a gas oven. The dry electric heat is perfect for crisp baked goods. More humid air resulting from firing natural gas (or propane) braises, roasts and bakes casseroles without drying.

Tasia Malakasis, owner of artisan goat-cheese maker Belle Chevre Creamery in Alabama, used a 48-inch model to develop and test the recipes for her 2012 cookbook, Tasia’s Table. Originally, she was shopping Viking and Wolf ranges. Then a salesman showed her a Five Star. “He told me that it was less expensive and had a better service record,” she said. She recently downsized and bought a 30-inch model for her new kitchen. “Honestly, I didn’t even look at another brand.”

Five Star’s highest-visibility public appearance is coming up in April at the 17th annual National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg. The company supplies the cook-off with ovens, trucking them out and setting them up, then testing them before the big day when nervous finalists will gather in the cook-off tent.

Ten home cooks from all over the country will break out their recipes and collect their supplies. They’ll try to stay focused as they fret over unfamiliar cooking tools. They’ll ignite the Five Stars, heat up Lodge cast-iron pans and measure the Martha White cornbread mix.

The judges will sample the 10 cornbread main dishes and make their decisions. Runners-up win cash and cooking gear. The grand-prize winner takes home $5,000 cash, cast-iron pans and a Five Star range, a pretty fine haul for making cornbread.

That winner, whoever he or she may be, will undoubtedly acknowledge, maybe just in secret, that it’s the cook that makes the meal.

But having great equipment doesn’t hurt.

1 Comment on this post:

By: numbertwo on 3/4/13 at 10:31

Great residential stove. I have used since 1998. Unit has 12" Grill and 12" flat griddle and well as wok ring and two stoves - 1 electric, 1 gas, both convection plus broiler. Great for homes vs commercial models. A1 Appliance service that severely sucks is only downside.