Maryland fathers survive pandemic by inventing City Bonfires for portable s’mores

WTOP's Jason Fraley reports on City Bonfires (Part 1)

When the pandemic hit, a pair of Potomac, Maryland, fathers worried about their jobs.

Michael Opalski was a restaurant industry salesman, while Chris McCasland worked in the sports and concert industry, as well as co-owning Quincy’s Bar & Grill in North Bethesda.

“It was quite the crazy time,” McCasland told WTOP. “At the beginning … just figuring out what we were going to do with the outside seating and the tent, it was just really crazy.”

“It came to a screeching halt,” Opalski told WTOP. “That trickled to nobody going to restaurants. … It knocked the wind out of me from a professional standpoint and we were trying to gather ourselves. Chris and I were lucky enough to meet and come together.”

The two entrepreneurs met while hunkering down with their families and closest neighbors.

“We live right across the street,” McCasland said. “We never really knew each other. We gave each other the head nod when we’d see each other getting the trash, but when COVID came, the kids were outside playing, so we were forced to hang out. … We were doing bonfires in the backyard. … Before you knew it, we had a pretty good idea.”

Together, they invented City Bonfires, a portable, reusable mini bonfire device. The 4-inch by 2-inch round metal tin is filled with nontoxic soy wax that burns for up to four hours.

“You can just light the briquettes that are in it and it’ll burn,” Opalski said. “The entire surface burns as opposed to [a] singular wick burn. … It’s so small, about the size of your palm, so it can be taken places easily. It can fit in a bag. … The size of a [large] tuna can.”

The portable nature allows it to be used on all kinds of outdoor adventures.

“People use them at the beach, I see a lot of pictures of people taking hikes and lighting them there,” Opalski said. “The most surprising was people using them in bug outbacks.”

It’s perfect for a glass of wine on the porch or roasting marshmallows on the deck.

“The kids want s’mores after dinner at 7:30 or 8:00, you pop outside, you light these … you do your s’mores, you throw the top back over it — in eight minutes you’ve got your s’mores and the fire is out,” McCasland said. “Try going outside and lighting a fire pit; you’re up to 2 in the morning making sure the embers aren’t blowing around.”

Families aren’t the only market for the product; businesses are buying them as well.

“We’ve done a big amount of corporate gifts for companies where we take their logo and make a sticker that goes on the can, so companies can give them to their employees,” McCasland said. “Restaurants have bought them to use; remember when people were doing the bubbles out on the sidewalks? … We’ve sold to a boatload of hotels.”

They’ve already sold over 350,000 cans since their first sale on Aug. 15, 2020.

“This is clearly Chris and I’s full-time thing; this isn’t the side business we were developing originally,” Opalski said. “When I reflect now and look back at it, there was an underlying nervous energy. … It was a nice relief and a place to put all that energy. … We’re really excited that people enjoy the project. Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley reports on City Bonfires (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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