Chris McCasland was one of the nearly 500,000 Americans who lost a job in the leisure and hospitality industry in March as stay-at-home orders spread throughout the country. A live entertainment industry broker, the Rockville resident realized he’d have to get creative to make up for his lost income.
Quarantining with his wife and kids, McCasland took an interest in e-commerce and began brainstorming ideas for new products. He landed on a portable and reusable fire pit but needed someone to help design it. McCasland shared his plan with Michael Opalski, a neighborhood dad who also lost his job to COVID-19, and City Bonfires was born.
“That’s the best part of our story,” says McCasland, who is also a co-owner of Quincy’s South in Rockville and Quincy’s Potomac. “Michael was on the road three or four days so we barely even knew him prior to the pandemic.”
The pair quickly got to work, making the mini fire pits themselves using American-made materials. Roughly the size of a roll of duct tape, each metal tin is filled with soy wax that burns for up to four hours. It can easily be extinguished with the lid and re-lit until it has been used up.
City Bonfires are also eco-friendly: the product is made with recycled wax that produces much less soot than a wood fire, meaning no smoky smell and lower carbon emissions. The paper briquettes inside are post-consumer, too. And because there are no embers, they’re safe to light in locations where traditional wood fires are not, such as screened-in porches.
The idea of a portable fire pit was conceived with family marshmallow roasts in mind; Opalski says he cannot recall one instance during the product’s development when his and McCasland’s kids missed out on a chance to make s’mores. City Bonfires even sells a four-person s’mores kit on its website.
Since launching in August, McCasland and Opalski have filled more than 5,000 orders. They have relied on a mixture of social media advertising and good-old-fashioned word-of-mouth to get their business off the ground. This approach seems to be working. Opalski says that the small business has recently gone international after filling several orders in Canada.
Many customers are also purchasing City Bonfires in bulk, says McCasland. Their small size appeals to realtors, college recruiters and anyone else whose job requires them to hand out goodies en-masse for the sake of salesmanship.
If their success continues, the pair says that they intend to make City Bonfires their full-time jobs even after the pandemic.
“If you had asked us two to three months ago if this had any potential at all, we wouldn’t have even thought about it,” says Opalski. “But this thing has legs, it’s fun, and if people enjoy it, we’ll keep trying to make it and make it better.”
A version of this story originally appeared in our December 2020-January 2021 issue.