There is always a feel-good component when we talk about a hometown kid who made good, particularly when they’re from your town. The same goes for a simple idea that well… works.
We first heard about City Bonfires from Joe Opalski, Easton resident and dad to Michael Opalski. He wanted us to know that his son and a neighbor started the company, an idea that Joe said was ‘genius.’ We followed up.
Born and bred in Easton, the younger Opalski graduated from Easton High, went to college, got married, started a job, had kids, and moved to Rockville, MD, not too far from his roots. In Rockville, he discovered that his across-the-street neighbor, Chris McCasland, and he had a connection to the restaurant industry. Opalski worked with a manufacturing company that sold equipment to restaurants. McCasland owned Quincy’s South Bar & Grille in Rockville and Quincy’s Potomac Bar & Grill in Potomac. McCasland also had a business selling tickets to concerts, sports, and theater events throughout the country.
A proud dad would not have contacted us, and this story might not have turned out to be a story at all was it not for the pandemic. Because suddenly, these two neighbors found themselves without their day-to-day jobs, quarantined in their homes. Like with many other communities, small neighbor pods formed. Their kids began to play together, and the two men, who had never really had more than a two- or three-minute conversation, became friends. With life on pause, as they hung around the house, McCasland shared some ideas he’d been thinking about that would be ‘cool to do’ during the pandemic. Opalski was interested.
What they came up with was simple: Their families had enjoyed gathering around a bonfire; why not, they thought, a personal and portable fire pit? A product that would give people in all living situations–whether in a city or rural setting–the chance to sit around an outside fire without needing lots of space and firewood and with no extra clean-up.
With a solid idea, the two entrepreneurs created various prototypes, finally settling on a 4×2 inch round metal tin can using non-toxic soy wax that becomes the flame and creates a reusable (with 3-4 hours of burn time) mini bonfire.
Their next decision was easy. Knowing that pursuing the big box stores or the old brick and mortars to sell their products would be a slow process (particularly during the pandemic), they decided to use e-commerce instead, creating ad content for social media platforms.
For that, they turned to Opalski’s hometown—Easton. It was the most obvious choice, he said, “there’s such beauty there–the landscape is just incredible. And we could get pictures of the can with the water behind it. We envisioned people using it, took pictures of that, and didn’t need to rely on stock photos.”
And so it began. Now, for many innovators, the possibility of selling some inventory would be a great side or temporary thing—until they could return to their ‘real jobs.’ What McCasland and Opalski did not anticipate was the response. And here is where this becomes a story–because this simple yet solid idea caught on. Again, partially because of COVID.
“It was the experience,” said Opalski. “If you’re a grandparent and couldn’t be with your grandkids, you could send them this and FaceTime with them and be part of the good time they were having. Making this process a little bit more convenient, hit a vein.”
“It also helped that people were stuck at home and were looking for different ideas of what to do outside with their family,” said McCasland. “It was an easy, inexpensive, quick decision kind of thing.”
Also unanticipated was that their buyers started coming up with ideas of their own, and the two responded. The can bonfire expanded from not just a ‘sit around and enjoy a fire’ to a kit that also came with all the components necessary to create s’mores.
The senior Opalski—Joe—was enlisted to help: “I’d go to all the local grocery/big box stores and buy their entire inventory of marshmallows and graham crackers. I’d get strange looks and stares as I came through the check-out lines.”
As the demand grew, so did Joe’s role. “It was fun and exciting watching and being part of his growth. At first, along with Chris’ family members, I was gluing wicks. Finally, I graduated to hauling wholesale supplies. I’d travel to the can manufacturer and bring 10-15,000 cans or 14,000 candy bars to their new warehouse.”
That’s right–they had to move to a warehouse because neither their garages nor their families could support or keep up with the expansion. It helped that the press was supportive. It’s only been a year, yet the product has been featured in People Magazine, Self, Reader’s Digest, E-Online, Today Show, CNBC, to name only a handful.
With all the national publicity, they also learned other ways their product was being used. “Neither Michael or I are big campers,” said McCasland, “but we learned a lot of people were bringing it when they went camping or were putting it in their survival bag or bug out bag.” There was also the very unexpected–you might even say– life-saving use. “Remember,” said McCasland, that crazy snow and sleet storm in Houston last winter that caused the power outages? We received videos from people showing us how they were boiling water to make ramen noodles.”
They soon received another surprise, but this one was international: “We began to sell quite a bit in Canada,” said McCasland. “We do a lot of corporate orders there, mostly retail corporate gifts. But we’re soon to be expanding into Europe and Australia, and Mexico.
Of course, what won’t be surprising is that both Opalski and McCasland now run City Bonfires full time (although McCasland still owns the restaurants, which, he said, are run by ‘really good general managers’).
As for the future, expect more accessories and more ways to enjoy the experience of their product. But don’t discount the possibility of new ideas coming to fruition because if there is one thing they learned, you sometimes need to go back to the basics. “It was kind of like a Business 101 course. Right? Start in your garage, put a little bit of money into it, don’t take too much risk, and everything will just start happening. And in our case, it did.”
Opalski credits this elementary success partially to his roots. “I think there’s some small-town sensibility that you grow up when you grow up in an area like Talbot County. And it doesn’t leave you as you age. Your adolescence are pretty impressionable years.”
Whatever the reason, this small-town sensibility is carried over into City Bonfire’s branding. From their advertising to their website and packaging, you get the same consistent message: “Made with ❤️ in Maryland.” What’s not to love about that?
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Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.