How City Bonfires Turned the Pandemic into a Success Story – City Bonfires | EP. #78
On this 78th episode of The E-Comm Show, our host, and BlueTuskr CEO Andrew Maff is with Chris and Mike of City Bonfires. City Bonfires make portable and reusable mini bonfires that you can take on any outdoor adventure. Discover how two dads who were laid off during the pandemic mobilized their creativity and innovation to start a brand that has surpassed $25 million in sales. Learn how they created a digital-first approach to customer experience and marketing strategies that have led to product expansion!
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How City Bonfires Turned the Pandemic into a Success Story – City Bonfires
Andrew Maff and Chris McCasland and Michael Opalski
Chris McCasland and Michael Opalski
Chris McCasland: Co-founder of City Bonfires! Chris is from Germantown, Maryland - in Montgomery County, outside of Washington, D.C. Prior to the pandemic, Chris was in the concert, sports, and event ticket industry. He is a part-owner of Quincy's Bar & Grille in Rockville @quincyssouth and Potomac @quincyspotomac. He lives in Potomac with his wife and son, Brooks (5).
I know that we're sending out all these influencers to start doing and posting on their own. We're starting to make more TikTok and reels markets telling
us that's what they want. So we're figuring out how to make them and give them the footage of how to use the product and how the market shows us how it's being used. So we're trying to provide the market with what it wants. Hey everyone, this is Nezar Akeel from MaxPro. Hi I'm Linda and I'm Paul and we're the Love and Pebble. Hi this is Lopa Van Der Merch
from RASA you're listening to and you're listening and you are listening to The E-Comm Show.
Welcome to The E-Comm Show, presented by BlueTuskr, the number one place to hear the inside scoop from other e-commerce experts. They share their secrets on how they scaled their business and are now living the dream. Now, here's your host, Andrew Maff. Hello,
everyone, welcome to another episode of The E-Comm Show. I'm your host as usual Andrew Maff. And today I'm joined by Chris and Mike of City Bonfires, Chris. Mike, how you guys doing great for a good show? We're doing great.
Thanks for hanging out. Yeah,
thanks for having us. Us here. We're super pumped to be here. Thank you.
Beautiful, super excited to have you guys on the show your story, your background, the like how you've gotten from where you were to where you are in such a short amount of time, like, super excited to go into this. I love starting these things off the traditional way. I'd love to give you guys an opportunity here to just let everyone know a little bit more about yourselves more about, say bonfires, and we can go from there.
Yeah, for sure. Again, thanks for having us, Michael and I are next-door neighbors. And we've been friends for a while. And before COVID. And then COVID came. And we got to know each other even more, you know, living right across the street and the kids playing, you know, every day with no school and you know, trying to entertain the kids. So Michael and I were chatting every day and trying to come up with some stuff to do and produce some income. Both of our jobs were, you know, in our previous careers impacted by COVID. So we were just sitting around and had no nothing to work on. So we started researching products and different things that we can make. And you know, using our time with our kids we came up with city bonfires. And it's been a really, really fun ride since then. And we've produced a little over a million bonfires so far. We're in a large warehouse. We were in my garage where we're shooting today. But now we've got about a little under 10,000 square foot warehouse that we're working on. Working from now. Right down the street in Rockville, Maryland. We still make them all here. So yeah, we've been rockin' and rollin'.
Are you guys still neighbors? Yeah,
we are. Yeah.
Nice. Yeah. Good. Good to hear you don't split up after that. Yeah, exactly. Hey, you gotta get over here. So you obviously launched this, this is a pandemic business, but it's probably one of the most successful pandemic businesses I've ever heard of. I know you guys have surpassed I think it's like 25 million in sales. And that's obviously what probably like two and a half years, I would imagine you probably launched what summer winter of 2020? Yeah,
right there. Our first sale was on August 15 of 2020. So we're two and a half years. And
that's ridiculous. There are so many sellers out there. They couldn't surpass that amount of money in 10 years. So bravo. Well done. That's awesome. Yeah. So then, of course,
it was a lot of work. But you know, luck and you know, things worked out. So yeah, anybody could do it.
Yeah. I mean, the biggest benefit, at least in my opinion, is obviously that your product line was fantastic for the pandemic because everyone's stuck at home, they're spent a lot of time outside, I did the same thing. As soon as I read about you guys, I actually was one of your customers who bought one a couple of years ago until I was like, Alright, I just got to put a giant fire pit, and because I was lucky enough to have a yard to do it in but at the time I was in an apartment was like this thing is great. I love this thing. Awesome. So obviously, I'm imagining because it came from the pandemic, that was a lot of the success from it. But what like what do you think was the thing that really helped you guys kind of propel this as it started to come out?
Well, I think we were really fortunate, like you said with the pandemic and everybody was forced to be at home, I thought I think the portability of it was something that really connected with people. And then I think, you know, in hindsight, we can see better than we could at the time, but I think it was because you people were sending an experience to their family member or friends I think the connectivity of that rather than just being something an item. It was an item that you knew when you send it to your nieces or nephews or your cousins or your grandkids or whoever, whoever it is, you knew they were gonna go out and have fun and think about the sender in a positive light. And so I think that's a little bit of the magic that got wrapped up in our story.
And is everything made here in the states do you out do you outsource anything overseas? is not
everything's made in the United States and brought to our warehouse in Rockville, and we can make them there with the wax and the briquettes. And they can, you know, all the processes are done in Rockville, and we do our own shipping.
That was one of the things we were focusing on because Chris was thinking through, how to start up a dropshipping business. But the issue was, even if he came up with the best idea in the world if it can't get on a boat to America, it didn't matter. So when we were designing this, we were lucky enough to find vendor partners that if we had to, we could get in trucks and drive to. And so because we built that infrastructure, that way, it's really given us a lot of flexibility. When we need to move fast. We know it's only so many hours to display so many hours and we can get in the trucks ourselves and go get it,
which we've done a lot of
years ago, I would imagine, what's your background? Because a lot of the decisions you guys are making right out of the gate for a new, like E-commerce business are very, like solid decisions that most sellers would have to learn the hard way for. So like, what's your background that you guys kind of knew the best ways to approach this stuff?
I guess it I guess, you know, I came up with my college degree in hospitality. And Chris's career has been through restaurants and hospitality. So I think that probably is the key pin. If you're looking for one item, we know that the customer is king. And we know that their experience matters. Because not only are they going to use it, but in the world, we're selling in, they're going to make comments on Instagram and Facebook. And that's going to help other people kind of connect with the product. So I think maybe it's you know, sales and sales and we don't really let any hurdles get in our way. That's something that's harder to convey in a single word. You know, there's nothing that's gonna stop us. But I think the fact that we're hospitality focused, maybe the answer you're looking for.
That's a good point. Yeah.
Yeah, that would, that would make a lot of sense. Plus, I think it's been years since I was in the hospitality business. But it was basically like, I would think that you also, were really good at knowing like, where your vendors are at. And if you gotta go deal with them. So obviously, that still worked out for you in your favor for this as well remember,
yeah, and that's a benefit of being you know, we're 10 miles outside of Washington, DC, you know, so we're going to, you know, close to Baltimore, which is a major port and hub, you know, and Philly and, you know, we're in a great area of the country too, you know, have people around us, and within a three to five-hour drive, you know, below that, but yeah, we would we've run it so many freaking trucks, we could own a 28 foot Penske Truck, but by now, probably, but yeah, so we, we just we make, the biggest thing is just to make it happen, you know, and not let anything get in your way. And think outside the box. And just get it done, you know, and reading the truck is like one of the prime examples of not letting anything get in your way. Like just go get a freaking truck and go get it.
Yeah. Are you solely selling on your website? Are you also on multiple different marketplaces? Are you in retail at all? Like what was what seems
Obviously, we have our Shopify website, and we have a whole wholesale division that you know, sells to different retailers for unfair, we were in a little over 1000 separate boutiques on the Commerce fair. We have a promo for a big promo product stance. So with PPI and ASI, where you can do, you know, corporate logos for things we've done Facebook, Netflix, multiple, multiple Netflix movies, like movie premieres we sent out, especially during COVID, to all the actors, you know, and you know, people, you know, throughout the movie, and they did a zoom for the night it came out.
Last week, we were just in San Antonio, the Ace Hardware show. So we promoted our stuff to all the individual Ace Hardware stores. So we're, we're pursuing all the avenues that become available to
- Yep. So the past two and a half years, we've spent millions and millions on ads, right? I mean, it's, you could look it up, and you can put it together. So we're using all that money that we've used, you know, that we spend on the ads and people know who we are, you know, and we'll like go into the ads or ads or killer. They're super funny. Thanks to our agency, honest agency, and good friends of ours. Yeah. And they crush and people love them, and they love our ads. And we're relatable guys, so people know who we are. So we're parlaying that into these retail stores and we have these really cool like 24 Pack retail display boxes that have our photos and you know, all the info about the bonfire. And they've been rocking, and that's what we sell on fair. That's in all of our Tractor supplies. We're going to a number of ACE hardware we're in all of the Air Force exchange stores like 120 of those like Wegmans and many many more stores that come that we're working on today.
Are you also on an online marketplace like Amazon or Walmart?
Yeah, those ones? Yes. What is the retail it's fun to we're just
we've been fortunate that we have had such success on the DTC side that now we're trying to layer in some of the brick-and-mortar retail sides to capitalize on the expenses. We spent already in our ads. You know, I mean, there's a lot of people out there that have seen us and seeing the product, and we're hoping to get like an impulse style purchase from them walking by and seeing it in a place close to
what do you think attributed to the success from a DTC standpoint? Like right in the beginning? Like, how do you kind of get that snowball effect on what were your marketing strategies? What was your kind of go-to approach?
Well, again, this goes a little bit back to COVID. And everybody's stuck at home, and everybody's sitting on their phones. So it was a, you know, a perfect storm for the ads at that period of time. And it was such a cool experience, or it is a cool experience, to not only gift someone but to do with your kids. Like, like we said at the beginning, we're stuck at home with our kids all day long. Like I don't know how a teacher does this every day with like, 30 kids. So we just have three, and that will now be four. But so we're trying to entertain the kids. So I think other people were doing, you know, the whole country, the whole world was doing the exact same thing is trying to think of stuff, they entertain their kids. And for 20 bucks, you know, to 40 bucks for the s'mores, whatever, you could have that three days at your house, and it's just another activity that's going to take an hour to the day that you have to entertain your kid.
And the story was relatable. I mean, we weren't the only people whose jobs were impacted, you know, and we trudge forward and found a way through it. And I think there are a lot of notes of the American dream in that story. And that connected with a broad base of people. And they saw Chris and me, you know, just trying to do what we could to, you know, provide for our families. And I think people respected that. And that may have gotten them to watch the ad, right? That may be the reason they watched the ad. And then they watched that and they're like, Hey, this is a pretty simple item. It was not that expensive. Let me try it. And so I think we're just very fortunate from timing, Chris, and I definitely, you know, if you can get paid on effort, we'd be making a lot more money.
Oh, yeah. How big is the team at this point?
Um, well, during the this is the Christmas season is like the massive, you know, q4 is incredible. Yeah, we'll have 25 to 35 people, like multi two shifts, sometimes if needed, like, right at the end, you know, like, right at Thanksgiving, Black Friday's like primetime. As you know. And right now, maybe eight to 10 people with the salespeople and such.
Yeah. Are you solely in the US? Or have you ventured into other regions at all
through fare? We're in multiple other regions through just shipping? You know, through our store? We are in Canada and Mexico. And that's it right now. But we're trying,
but should you shift your marketing more to Canada around this time of year?
No, I think we're doing the same we do. You know, Canada has done really well for us. But I don't to be honest with you. I don't know exactly where he pushes this, you know, to this and that. But that's, I'll ask him a good question.
How are you liking a fair, fair has really started to make themselves known in the industry in the past. Like, I would say, like, a year or so. And I'm starting to hear more and more sellers being a big fans of it. What's your experience? Been with it?
I wish the commission was less, you know, obviously, but I'm sure anybody would pick it. We all do. It's a big bite, you know, it's a big bite of what you get, I'll say that for sure. I absolutely wish it could be cheaper. But it's where the, you know, people are shopping there, you know, the, the beach shop to the nail salon that has a little you know, boutique type thing in the front, you know, any of the soap, and then that's honestly, where how we got into Ace Hardware was through fair, there was a number, you know, it's hardware is there individually owned it, you know, some folks own you know, two to 510, whatever, but they're all individually owned. And people bought, you know, Ace Hardware. It's unfair. And then we reached out to a local guy here that kept buying in Virginia. And he had told us, you know, we're how we needed to proceed with an ace. And then as Michael said, we were just in San Antonio last week, for their big spring convention. And we sold to, you know, hundreds of a store so it was a great show. For us. It was well received.
Beautiful. How are you looking to expand the product line, if at all, I know you've got the s'mores kit you kind of have like a gift set kit and outdoor kit but like what's the breadth of where you think it's gonna go?
We've got a lot of different ideas. We came out with these out citronella candles that really rock you know, we have we have all this wax that we use to make a bonfire. So we could easily become candle makers of any sort at this point, even though we've never made a candle practice, venture, but now we've made millions. So the citronella is we have four different senses of eucalyptus. citronella on its own small citronella and then a combination of eucalyptus and citronella. So that's been good. We have a grill. What else is your mug? Oh yeah, we have a mug with our name on it with our logo that's a candle that is scented like hot chocolate. And my father actually came over and he's now our warehouse manager slash candle scientist mix master and so he makes little marshmallow cubes out of wax that He sprinkles on top of the hot chocolate candle. So as it's burning down the marshmallow-scented wax is also mixing with the hot chocolate wax so it's the smell is incredible. So we've got that
and that's our and that's our dad's genial indoor candle. Everything else we make outdoor only but that that one is the first venture into indoor candles. Yeah,
we have a grill like a collapsible grill we're working on. Well, the sorry, that's out that's on the website. We've had it up for a few months. Now.
That was, you know, when Texas lost their power, that that's what's inspired that we saw a lot of people were using different things to melt snow and to make the water to be able to boil noodles. And so you know, what's great about the Instagram, and Facebook, part of the business is that you get instant feedback. And so Chris and I were talking about it, and we were like, you know, this is something that the market wants. So how do we create it? And so we started, we bought some stainless steel and started cutting it, and Chris's father and I were messing with it, and we came up with it. And it's been a pretty good seller. And we thought of it for emergencies, but it's also really good for camping. And it breaks down into like an index card size. So it's really small and compact. Like, you know, we keep learning for people, people put it in, like the glove compartment of the car, you know, just just in case an emergency arises. So the uses are far beyond what we originally envisioned.
Yeah, so we're working on a few things.
Were you two inventors before this?
I don't really think so. No, I mean, we were businessmen. Right. So we had like a little bit of that for Nouriel us as far as how we operated in our fields. But I've never created anything prior to this.
Not that I've never created anything that anything anybody would want. Yeah.
That's awesome. So obviously, you've mentioned a couple of times, like you're very heavy on the ad side, that's definitely how you're kind of acquiring your customers. What else are you doing outside of that? Have you ventured into like a strong approach and social or influencer marketing or SEO or retention? Like what's your approach outside of the ads? Yeah, we've,
we've reached out to a, but we signed up for a new one that partners with the influencers, so you can choose them a lot. This is something that my wife and the agency do. So I might screw this up. All right, we were part I know that we're sending out, you know, like, hundreds of st you know, things, all these influencers to start doing and posting on their own. We're starting to make more TikTok and reels, which, you know, that's a little bit below our age, right? So we're trying to learn, you know, learn, learn how to flow with that. But that's been fun. We made a really good one last night. We now like, script them out, you know, so So we're taking it seriously. So we're trying to do that. We're big, you know, I know we use Claudio, the, for the emails. What else?
And we're learning from the market, like Chris is saying, you know, with the TIC TOCs, and the reels and that kind of stuff, you know, the markets telling us, that's what they want. So we're figuring out how to make them and give them the footage of how to use the product and how the market shows us how it's being used. So we're trying to, you know, provide the market what it wants.
Nice, how hot do they actually get compared to? Actually, I don't know, I don't even know what to compare it to. Because I know do you have? Have you developed? Have you started to develop competition now? Are you getting a ton of knockoffs and having to deal with that? Yeah,
I mean, I mean, they're happening, you know, there's nothing you can do to stop people from doing that. But our name and brand recognition are what we're gonna have to ride on. And so
you guys got so big, so fast that yeah, and we're sure you're owning it,
and we're trying to we're trying like, like we were going to ace you know, I mean, trying to get it in front of people I mean, that's the only way you can combat certain things. I mean, you know, kind of flattering when people you know mimic you right that's the highest form of flattery as frustrating as it is from time to time but I don't know that they can do everything we're doing. It's not a challenge. But you know, we've been pretty lucky, and stuff like
that. Yeah, don't
tell but they last three to five hours. It is right. Yeah.
But you can extinguish the flame at any time so that the Total burn time is three to five hours, but you could use it for 15 minutes like last night we were made. In smores, with our kids for the Tiktok video, and we had it lit for 20 minutes, and we made our smores we filmed our video, we slid the lid over. And you know, you could use we could use it again today for the videos we're making today. So it's, it's not just one-time use, you know, you could use it as many times as you'd like.
Yeah. What's the end game? Is your thought you're gonna hand it down to your kids one day, are you thinking you're gonna The goal is to eventually get acquired? Have you ever thought through that far ahead yet?
I think we're open to what comes. I mean, so we're willing to have any conversation that comes I mean, it's, it's paying for our lives for you know, this is going to be the third fourth year. I mean, so that's great. We're continuing to grow. So while we have the quote-unquote, offseason, right, where things are, you know, not as hectic as they are during the Q three and four. This is when we're developing a lot of things. And a lot of the stuff we developed last spring, and summer, then helped us, you know, crush even harder during q3, and four, and we're doing the same thing this year, this year, we're layering in a lot more retail, and spending a lot more time learning about that side of the business. As far as what the future holds, I don't know that any of us would have thought we'd be here at this point. So again, we're open to all discussions, but might as well stay on the train as long as it lasts.
Yeah. What is it that it's always an interesting question, because it's something I usually try to do towards the end of our show anyways, like, what is the motivation for you guys? Like, everyone's kind of got their own thing? I feel like every time I ask this question, I get a different answer. And obviously, there are two of you. So imagine, I'm gonna get a different answer from both of you. But like, what's the thing that like, you wake up, and that's what gets you excited to keep growing this,
um, just my family, you know, and providing and being a good dad and husband and son, brother, you know, just being the best that I can be nothing particular just supporting my family,
and what it can provide for them. I mean, this opportunity is, you know, when we, when we talk to the kids, and they can see that if you work hard, and you develop something that, you know, there's different paths in America, you know, you don't necessarily have to follow the normal path to get there. And I mean, what an opportunity for them to be in these videos a little bit and, you know, kind of see how it works. Who knows how that will broaden their horizons?
Yeah. Beautiful. Chris. Mike really appreciated having you guys on the show. I'd obviously like to give you guys the opportunity, feel free to let everyone know where they can find out more about you. And of course, city bonfires.
Yeah, our website is city bonfires.com. Mike and I are email is ChrisandMichael@CityBonfires.com. If you want to email us, we're on every social at City Bonfires. And yeah, that's, I think that's our spiel.
Thank you so much for your time. Yeah, thanks. Yeah,
appreciate it. Thanks so much for being on the show guys. Obviously, everyone that tuned in thanks you as well. Per usual rate review, subscribe, and all that fun stuff on whichever platform you want, or head over the comm show.com to check out all of our other episodes, but as usual, thank you all for joining us and we'll see you all next time.
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