Fire Within: Manufacturing Traditional Wood-Fired Ovens, Empowering Entrepreneurs, and Building Communities
Fire Within is, technically, a small Colorado-based company that manufactures traditional Neapolitan-style wood-fired ovens mounted onto custom-made trailers to allow for mobility. The core mission of the organization, however, reaches much further. As President and CEO Ajith Dharmawardhana says, “we are telling a story with this oven. This is, literally, people gathering around the fire.” Fire Within provides an entire experience for the consumer and seeks to empower people and help them achieve their dreams. In addition to customizing and purchasing an oven, customers are also invited to attend the Fire Within University where they receive instruction not only on cooking, but also how to start a business. Additionally, they connect with other owners from around the country and learn new and unexpected uses for their oven, such as baking bread or cooking fish, desserts, and poultry. By the time the client brings their Fire Within oven home, they have all of the necessary tools to take control of their livelihood, their schedule, and their overall quality of life. Additionally, the new entrepreneur quickly discovers the benefits the oven can bring to their community. By having a presence at the local farmers market, using the oven to raise money for their church, or catering a neighbor’s wedding, the owner is able to bring people together to break bread and commune in a joyous and meaningful way. As Ajith says, “it’s catering AND it’s pure theatre. Gathering around the fire is primordial. It feeds our bodies and our souls.”
Fire Within has two main locations. The first is the administrative office located in a diverse and colorful neighborhood in Aurora, Colorado. The second location is the manufacturing facility in Fort Collins where they make the hand-crafted ovens in a variety of different sizes. It then takes 4 to 5 weeks for the oven to cure before it can be mounted on a trailer. The trailers, similarly, can be customized in terms of size, length, color, etc. and are produced and delivered by a third-party supplier.
When Ajith took over the company in 2013, he realized that the traditional workflow employed by Fire Within over the previous decade was time-consuming and cumbersome. An individual order typically involved meeting with the client to assess their needs and specifications and then ordering the customized trailer and waiting for it to arrive. Once the trailer arrived, they would then begin the process of creating the oven and building it directly onto the trailer. From start to finish, this process easily took 1 to 2 months. In order to build up some inventory, Ajith and the team would construct a couple of models to have on hand, but would then be faced with the task of having to find the right customer to match the product in that particular size, shape, color, etc.
Knowing that there must be a better, more efficient way to produce the Fire Within ovens without sacrificing quality, Ajith applied for assistance through Manufacturer’s Edge (ME) and the Small Manufacturer’s AdvantEDGE (SMA) program. The ME team then met with Ajith, toured his manufacturing facility, and conducted a series of Value Stream Mapping exercises, which resulted in an extensive overhaul of the production process. What they discovered was that the ovens can be built in advance and stored on trays in the facility until they are needed. Now, when a customer places an order for a mobile oven, the only wait time incurred takes place between ordering the trailer and waiting for it to arrive a few days later in Fort Collins. Once that happens, there are already 4 or 5 ovens cured and waiting to be mounted on the trailer. The process of marrying the oven and the trailer only takes a few hours as compared to the 4 or 5 weeks it used to take to build the oven directly onto the trailer. Following this method, Fire Within has been able to cut their lead time in half and can now deliver numerous ovens in the same amount of time as it used to take to complete one.
When people ask me, “what do you sell?” I tell them we sell freedom. We sell lifestyle. Show me a business in the US that you can start for under $40k today and pay for it within the first year. Working with Manufacturer’s Edge allowed us to cut our lead time in half, which means that we can make exponentially more dreams into a reality every year.
– Ajith Dharmawardhana, President and CEO, Fire Within