Potomac neighbors launch portable-bonfire business during pandemic

Amid pandemic downtime, Potomac neighbors launch portable-bonfire business

Partners sell more than 5,000 ‘City Bonfires’ in first two months

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Michael Opalski (left) and Chris McCasland, Potomac dads and City Bonfires co-owners, launched their joint business during the coronavirus pandemic.

Submitted photos

During the coronavirus pandemic, two neighbors in Potomac have used their newfound free time to design and produce a line of portable bonfires.

In the spring, Michael Opalski and Chris McCasland came up with the idea for City Bonfires — a 4-inch-by-2-inch heat source. Over the next few months, they tried numerous prototypes before deciding on the final product.

They began selling it in August, and have sold more than 5,000 units since then.

The portable bonfire allows people with “small, postage-stamp-sized patios” to partake in the campfire tradition, Opalski said.

During the pandemic, the business partners have spent time bonding with their families.

Their children — McCasland’s son Brooks is 4; Opalski’s son Alex is 12 and daughter Anna is 9 — have become inseparable, they said. Nights spent making s’mores around a bonfire have been part of that bonding.

“We’re hoping a lot of people have access to that fun experience during this difficult time,” Opalski said.

The two are both Maryland natives and have been neighbors in Potomac for two years. They exchanged greetings before, but didn’t get to know each other until the pandemic kept them both shuttered at home.

City Bonfires, a business started by two Potomac neighbors, offers a portable, convenient heat source that burns for three to four hours.

Until the spring, Michael spent most of his time traveling for his job with a restaurant supply company.

Both had their routines greatly affected by the pandemic.

McCasland is a co-owner of Quincy’s South, a restaurant in Rockville. The restaurant’s finances took a hit over the past few months, while Opalski found himself unable to travel.

McCasland said he always had a little bit of “entrepreneurial spirit.” He spent time researching new e-commerce techniques while stay-at-home orders were in place.

One night, when he couldn’t sleep, he was racking his brain for product ideas. The name City Bonfires came to him.

“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments,” Opalski said.

Throughout the remainder of the spring, the two tried different tin sizes and wax types for the portable bonfire. They created six to 10 different prototypes, and trademarked the name “City Bonfires.”

The product includes a tin filled with soy wax. Like a candle, once it’s lit, it will burn for three to four hours. The fire is oil-based, so customers cannot put it out with water. Instead, they should put the container’s top on, which will snuff out the flame.

They can continue reusing the product until the wax is gone.

The tin has instructions printed on it, as well as a QR code that links to their website with additional information.

The portable bonfire retails for $26.95 on the site, but is currently on sale for $20.95. Additionally, the two sell a kit with marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate for ready-to-make s’mores.

Currently, the City Bonfire website is the only place to buy the product. However, the partners are in talks to bring the bonfires to multiple e-commerce and brick-and-mortar stores. They are not divulging the stores’ names in case the deals do not go through.

Due to the product’s success, McCasland and Opalski are moving the business to a warehouse in Rockville, where they plan to quadruple production to make more than 1,000 portable bonfires each day. They just began hiring staff and will continue to do so as they make the move.

So far, production has been a family effort, with their parents, cousins and aunts pitching in.

The two emphasized that the product is handmade in Maryland using entirely sustainable materials. Additionally, all of the raw materials are from the United States.

“That’s just a fun extra thing to make us feel good about the product,” Opalski said.

Each day, sales are busier than the last, McCasland said. And the two have plans to continue the business development in the future. They are thinking about making a bug repellant product for the spring.

“One great thing is that I never knew Michael before this,” McCasland said. “It’s brought us together.”

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