Final assembled grill

Product Review: Traeger BBQ 400 Select 18

I’ve been a “big stainless steel natural gas” barbeque grill guy for a long time. I’ve owned everything from entry-level Nexgrill units, to mid-level KitchenAid grills, all the way up to the big-daddy Viking grills. So this past Saturday, when my wife and I hit our local Costco, our intent was to pick up another mid-to-high-end stainless that burned natural gas (since we’ve got a natural gas stub on the deck).

But as luck, or perhaps fate, would have it… Traeger Grills was having a “road show” event at Costco that day. One of their sales guys, André, was a skilled enough salesman to initiate conversation when he sensed the slightest slowdown in my step as I passed by their booth. “You ever cooked with wood pellets?” It was a great opener — and as the conversation continued, I could tell that this wasn’t anywhere near André’s “first BBQ.” He was the kind of salesman I love: direct (without being pushy), tenacious, knowledgeable, and motivated. I was honest with him that I was, indeed, at Costco today to buy a BBQ grill, and he gave me the full run-down on the Traeger Select (BBQ 400) — which is a combination BBQ grill and smoker.

Traeger Select BBQ 400

Traeger Select BBQ 400

What is a Pellet Wood Grill?

My wife’s dad is an experienced wood pellet griller and smoker, so I wasn’t completely ignorant of this style of cooking. But rather than try to explain here the differences between charcoal or gas cooking vs. wood pellets, just watch this six minute video (FYI – the video is not made by Traeger, it’s actually made by an appliance retailer):

Buying a Traeger Select BBQ 400

Our story now jumps back to Costco, where it had taken André about 10 minutes to get me to the point where I was ready to bite. During that time, no fewer than four fellow Costco shoppers walked by the booth, mentioned that they owned a Traeger, and that they love it. André would make them come closer and ask them to say it again louder for my benefit (did I mention André was good?). One guy was there at the booth returning a Traeger that he’d purchased from the roadshow event two days earlier… because he regretted getting the small one and was back to get a larger unit! I told André I wanted to do some online comparisons, and he said “Sure! Pull your phone out right now and do what you gotta do.” Confidence is key with a good salesman.

After some Googling, I was convinced that the Costco road show price was a good deal. The Traeger Select Grill sells for $1,299.99 on Traeger’s website. You’ll pay $1,399.99 if you’re dumb enough to buy it from Cabela’s. The Costco deal was $999… and came with the legendary Costco return policy. They were also selling the Traeger outdoor grill covers for $56.35, the cookbooks for $19.99, and bottles of their BBQ rub for $8 (all the same prices as in the Traeger online store). A crowd was forming around the booth (when one customer stops, others feel more comfortable doing do), and I was at the point of telling André that I’d buy a Select… but only if he’d throw in a free cover, cookbook, and a bottle of rub. But before I could speak, André pulled another pro move, leaned in to where only I could hear him (clearly an intentional sales tactic… but an effective one), and said “Look… there’s a big crowd around, and it looks good if we sell one in front of everyone, so if you let me sell you one right now, I’ll throw in the cover and the cookbook for free.” I whispered back “Toss in a bottle of the rub, and you’ve got a deal.” We shook hands, and André yelled to the crowd “Just sold another Select!” You gotta appreciate a bit of salesman theatre. 🙂

Setting Up a Traeger Select BBQ 400

On Sunday afternoon, with the help of my neighbor Jeremy, I pulled the large cardboard box holding my new baby out of the back of the SUV and onto the front porch (easier to assemble it on the front porch, then wheel it through the house onto the back deck). I enlisted the help of my 17 year-old son Jonah, we unboxed everything and laid pieces and smaller boxes all over the front porch.

Traeger gets top scores for packaging. Minimal use of sytrofoam, maximum use of recyclable cardboard, and all the necessary hardware (and a cute little wrench) included in a blister pack. The blister pack also displayed each piece of hardware by name, just in case any future trips to the hardware store were necessary to replace a lost or broken screw, nut, or washer. All the metal parts are wrapped in plastic, and everything is labelled with a lettered sticker (which was easy to remove post-assembly).

My charged my son with reading the assembly instructions (which were very well written) and gathering hardware, while I opened boxes with my pocket knife and assembled the pieces he handed me. After about an hour, our grill was almost assembled. It helps if you’re somewhat handy, and assembly was relatively pain-free… until we reached unlucky step #13 on page 8 of the assembly instructions. While attempting to tighten one of the stainless steel screws (part G) into the (zinc?) Zerk rivet that holds the right side upper door hinge (part T) in place, I could tell right away that the screw wasn’t seating properly. I backed it out and tried a different screw. Same problem. It felt as if the screw was too large for the female threads, and I could only get the screw to go in about 2/3 of the way. After attempting this with three different screws, I could see that the female threads were beginning to strip, so even though I was using a manual screwdriver (I never assemble stuff like this with power tools), I decided not to press my luck:

Right side door hinge mounting holes

Right side door hinge mounting holes

I decided to try mounting the door hinge on the left side, and had the same problem. After getting the screw in about 2/3 of the way on the top rivet, it started to bind like the ones on the right side, so I backed the screw out. I attempted to install the bottom, screw, and had the same issue. Figuring that maybe it was operator error, and that perhaps these screws just needed a bit more torque, I twisted a bit harder (harder than I normally would) to see if I could get it to tighten all the way. The screw still didn’t budge… but the Zerk rivet broke free and started to rotate, meaning I couldn’t tighten or loosen the screw G! So my hinge is now stuck like this:

Left side door hinge screw is now stuck in a free-spinning rivet

Left side door hinge screw is now stuck in a free-spinning rivet

Because I had promised my wife dinner on the Traeger that night, I decided to ignore the doors for now, and move on with the instructions. I encountered another problem on page 8, with step #15, while attaching the front trim piece. Three of the four screws (part DD) screwed in fine, but when I reached the one on the lower right side, it bound up like the ones in step #13. However, screw DD is made of zinc, which is much weaker than its stainless cousins screw G… so when I applied a bit more force, the screw snapped in half… and I’m really not looking forward to drilling it out and using my tap and die set to clean up the threads:

Screw DD sheared during mounting

Screw DD sheared during mounting

The rest of the assembly went fine, though at this point I started to wish that Traeger had used all stainless steel hardware (and I may just swap out all the zinc pieces in my grill with stainless versions myself).

My “final” assembled grill (sans doors) looked like this:

Final assembled grill

Final assembled grill

Initial Startup of a New Traeger Grill

Before cooking any food on a new Traeger, the grill needs to be seasoned, which basically means running it on high for 45 minutes. I filled the hopper with mesquite pellets (I had purchased 6 bags of pellets from Costco during the road show for $11 per 20lb bag… then which I’d purchased more once I found out the Amazon price for those bad-boys is $24), followed the well-documented start-up procedure, and then started the 45 min seasoning burn.

When the grill was ready, I shut it off and used tongs to wipe an avocado oil-soaked paper towel over the porcelain grill grates to help them be less sticky for the chicken (I prefer avocado oil over other oils because of the high smoke point).

The 1 Hour Chicken Challenge

André had made a bold promise back at Costco. He instructed me to put the unit on high, throw a chicken on the grill, then don’t even peek at it for one hour. If, after that hour, the chicken wasn’t the best I’d ever tasted, I was to bring the grill back to Costco and return it.

I love me some chicken, so I was excited to try the “Chicken Challenge” as my first Traeger-cooked meal. I brushed some avocado oil on an organic chicken, sprinkled some of the Traeger BBQ rub on both sides, then set it on the grill:

"Before" chicken

“Before” chicken

Exactly one hour later, this was waiting for me:

"After" chicken

“After” chicken

Yes… it tasted even better than it looks, and I had to agree with André that it was the best chicken I’ve had.

Cleaning and Storage

My grill seasoning had worked fine for the most part, but I still had a little skin left on the grill after plating the chicken:

"Almost" non-stick

“Almost” non-stick

I didn’t have a brass wire brush (which is the recommended method of cleaning porcelain grills), so I just used some warm water and the scrubby side of a plastic Scotch sponge, which still turned out fine:

After cleaning

After cleaning

Some Traeger owners like to cover the drip tray below the grill in foil prior to cooking, but the consensus among the “pros” seems to be that letting it burn off naturally is the way to go, and simply to take a paint scraper to it every six months. That seems manly to me, so that’s the way I’m going, too! I do have a brass grill brush on order from Amazon, however.

After letting the unit cool, I busted out my free cover and tried it out. It fits perfectly, and looks nice:

Covered grill ready for next time

Covered grill ready for next time

Calling Customer Service

Because my assembly problems had happened on a Sunday, I waited until Monday morning to contact Traeger Customer Service, because I assumed there’s no way they’d be open on a Sunday. But this morning (Monday morning) when I went to their website to look up the number, I kicked myself when I noticed that their customer service number is answered from 5AM to 7PM Pacific time… seven days a week!

I called the number, and after a few minutes on hold, I was connected to Cory. I explained to him the issue, and the first words out of his mouth were what should be on the tip of any customer service rep’s tongue “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this problem. We will do whatever it takes to resolve the issue.”

Cory asked me to snap some photos and email them to their customer service address, along with my Traeger’s serial number and my contact info. Those photos are all in this review, so I think I’ll just email a link to this blog article instead, and then post an update below.

And just as he did at the beginning of the call, Corey apologized on behalf of Traeger for the issue, and assured me they’d make it right. That does a lot to bolster my confidence.

Not Quite Final Thoughts

My thoughts aren’t final quite yet, since I do have an open customer service issue… but based on what I’ve read online about Traeger’s reputation for service, I’m optimistic they’ll come through. And even in the unlikely event that they don’t, I can always return it to Costco.

But I don’t want to return it — and not just because it will be a pain to partially disassemble and roll back into the Costco warehouse, but because I already love my Traeger. In fact, I’m still deciding what I’m going to cook tonight, but I already know it’s going to taste great. And this is a first for me to give a positive review to something that had assembly issues out of the box. But since none of the issues affect the functionality of the grill, I’m withholding my overall judgement until after I give Traeger a chance to get things right.

So hopefully Traeger can just send me whatever parts are necessary to get my doors and trim piece mounted properly (those Zerk rivets look machine-mounted, so I have a feeling I’ll need some new panels). And if they wanted to send me a coupon code for a discount for some accessories on their online store for my trouble, I wouldn’t turn it down. Especially since I’ve got my eye on a pellet caddy, grilling basket, grilling tool set, grill pad, chicken throne, rib rack, meat injector kit, extra grill rack, magnetic pellet hopper label set, and a T-shirt that says “I’d smoke that.” 😉

Watch for updates to this post when I hear back from Traeger!

Update – Well, THAT Didn’t Take Long…

I sent my email to Traeger linking to this article at 12:23 PM. Less than 2 hours later, at 2:12 PM, I received the following email:

I apologize about the troubles you’re having with the grill right off the bat like this. I would like to ship a replacement upper tub assembly to you, but I am going to need a good shipping address to do so. I am also going to add a grill pad to the order as well to make up for this happening in the first place. Once I have that shipping address I will be able to get this stuff shipped out of here for you.

Thank you, Cory Middleton
Traeger Service Department
7 days a week 5am-7pm pacific time
(800) 872-3437

Wow. Cory strikes again. I was mostly kidding about the coupon code for their online store (although not kidding about planning on buying a bunch of stuff there), and never expected getting a hook-up as cool as a free grill pad (that I really was going to buy anyway), but that right there, folks, is some top-notch customer service.

Traeger did exactly what a company that stands behind its products is supposed to do: apologize, make it right, and turn a potentially negative experience that could chase a customer away into an irrefutably positive one that increases their post-consumer confidence. Also, I’m so glad I don’t have to cart this baby back to Costco. I’ve got tri-tip cooking on it right now, and I’ve got ribs in the fridge getting ready for tomorrow. 🙂

I never fault a company for making a mistake, or having a product issue, or anything else of that nature. We’re all human, and sometimes mistakes happen. I’ll only fault shoddy customer service… and I find no fault here.

Great job, Traeger, for turning a rookie customer into a customer for life.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to go stand in the smoke screen currently being created by my tri-tip.