Ralston fired up about kindling

MIDDLEBURY — Entrepreneur Paul Ralston has always had a burning desire to try his hand at businesses that depend on fire. To wit, heat has been an essential ingredient at the Bristol Bakery (which he founded) and at his current, growing venture, the Vermont Coffee Company, where the roasting of beans exudes an intoxicating aroma at its headquarters on Middlebury’s Exchange Street.
So it should come as no surprise that Ralston’s latest entrepreneurial idea has flame at its core. It’s called “Vermont Sweet Maple Kindling,” through which he is working in concert with local loggers and Bristol-based A. Johnson Lumber Co. to produce fire-starting material for folks using wood stoves and fireplaces.
“I guess I’m just a firewood geek or maybe a firewood junkie,” Ralston said on Monday. “I enjoy cutting and splitting firewood. I love to stack firewood, and of course I love the heat from a wood stove.”
That affinity for wood heat prompted Ralston to experiment with the size and shape of firewood for ease of handling and with methods to burn wood more efficiently and cleanly. He tried different kinds of kindling and found that dry maple worked the best, because of the lasting coals it produces. Soft wood like pine tends to disintegrate quickly after it is set afire, Ralston noted.
It was last year that he began to seriously explore kindling as a business opportunity. He drew up a plan and enlisted some partners. His primary partner is the A. Johnson Lumber Co., which has agreed to set aside some maple trees accumulated during harvests. Those maples are debarked, cut into precise 10-inch sections, split once, and dried for five or six days in A. Johnson’s kilns.
The wood chunks are then taken to a warehouse next to Vermont Coffee’s Exchange Street base. There, the wood is run through a conveyor-fed splitter that carves it into the narrow, 10-inch kindling sticks that are then placed in cardboard boxes for shipping to the dozens of stores in Vermont, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania that have agreed to carry the product. In Vermont, the product will be available at stores such as Shaw’s supermarket and Price Chopper, he said.
Each box retails for around $10 and provides enough kindling to start 15-20 stove or fireplace fires. The boxes also feature directions on the best way to start a fire, along with fire safety tips.
Ralston is realistic about the consumers to whom he is marketing Vermont Sweet Maple Kindling. He knows that many Vermonters can find satisfactory kindling in their own backyards on a dry day. But he also knows there are urban and suburban dwellers who want dry, clean, conveniently sized and responsibly harvested premium kindling to quickly start fires in their stoves and/or fireplaces. Also appealing to consumers, according to Ralston, is the fact that the wood comes from a 50-mile radius from where it is processed, and that it is all harvested from forestland in Vermont’s Current Use program. This means that it is grown in a sustainable way according to a state management plan. The product is also creating a value-added market for smaller-diameter timber, according to Ralston.
His business instincts about the demand for good kindling were validated at the Vermont Grocers’ Association gathering at the Champlain Valley Expo last Friday.
“The grocery chains and ski areas were all over it,” he said of his kindling product. “Almost every retailer there placed an order.”
So with more than 40 orders at the Expo, Ralston’s biggest concern right now is not having enough wood to meet demand. With A. Johnson’s help, the company is already turning around 75 cords of wood into kindling. He is hoping to get 30 or 40 more cords to meet current demand.
Ralston, a Middlebury state representative and a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, has already hired four people to operate Vermont Sweet Maple Kindling. He is looking to hire at least three more.
“We expect to be busy,” he said.
So busy, that he anticipates the business to operate year-round. He is considering additional investments in the operation, including a box-making machine, a conveyor-fed kiln and additional processing equipment to handle upwards to 1,000 cords of wood annually. Plans call for a campfire wood product, Vermont Sweet Maple Charcoal and Fire-in-a-Box, which is a mix of maple kindling and maple chunks.
“We are going to build a factory; that’s where it’s at,” Ralston said.
The new business start-up will also benefit Vermonters finding it tough to afford heating fuel this winter. Wood that does not meet size requirements after it goes through the splitter will be donated to area human services agencies for distribution to qualifying Vermonters with wood stoves.
Robin Scheu, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., said she is pleased to see a new business grow in Middlebury’s industrial park.
“It’s fabulous,” she said. “And I love how (Ralston) is working with other businesses in the county to make this happen. To me, it epitomizes the inter-dependence of businesses in our county.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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