Fire, food, and the human need to gather around both gave Mike Bertelsen the idea to create Cowboy Cauldron.
We humans have a lot more in common with ants than you might think.
Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson, who studied ants for decades, concluded that an aspect of their social behavior was largely related to having a defensible nest — a fun fact you might learn in conversation with Mike Bertelsen, owner of luxury fire-pit maker Cowboy Cauldron Company.
“Humans gained a defensible nest when they mastered the art of fire,” says Bertelsen, who grew up in Utah loving the outdoors, hunting, and, one assumes, encountering plenty of ants. He has studied Wilson because he’s intrigued by how fire has brought humans closer together.
When people use their Cowboy Cauldron, it’s called a burn, explains company owner Mike Bertelsen. The word is both a noun and a verb, used as a rallying cry for friends to join together around the fire.
“All of our behaviors [are] predicated around the sort of communication that happens around a fire,” Bertelsen says. “In any situation where a group of people arrange themselves to have a conversation, they get into as close to a circle as they can be, whether that’s in a living room or around a dining room table.”
To Bertelsen, face-to-face interaction is so important that he built an entire business around bringing people closer together. His circle just happens to be around a Cauldron, filled with, you guessed it, fire.
Growing up, Bertelsen, like lots of kids, loved playing with fire. He was also an avid hunter who liked to cook what he caught. His eventual career path — law school followed by a move to Washington, D.C., to become a lobbyist for the mutual-fund industry — took him far from the outdoor lifestyle he was accustomed to, but his Western-lifestyle roots remained. Living in Virginia near Mount Vernon, he got permission to bow hunt and fish on the grounds of George Washington’s historic home.
His Senate liaison work in D.C. was “basically entertaining for a living,” which meant frequently hosting friends, colleagues, and other assorted influential guests at his home and cooking a great meal for the occasion. Having ruined the family grill that had been a housewarming present from his mother-in-law by building fires right in the base, Bertelsen had to get serious about honing his live-fire skills.
At a Christmas celebration at Mount Vernon, Bertelsen was inspired when he saw a colonial heating brazier, and the idea for Cowboy Cauldron began to take shape. He sourced the steel and finalized his design to create a structure that was big enough and strong enough to perform well as a fire pit and grill, while still being beautiful, clean, and capable of helping him entertain his sophisticated political guests.
The result was highly successful.
“In the political milieu,” Bertelsen says, “people have two very disparate psyches: They have their personal life, and then they have their professional life. They keep the two very carefully bifurcated. But around the fire, those guards are let down, and a level of trust evolves, especially over time. The wonderful dynamic about the Cauldron was that it became sort of a sacred space for everyone.”
That human impact has helped fuel the mission of Cowboy Cauldron ever since.
“The Cauldron allows people to arrange themselves in a circle, look into each other’s eyes and be both side by side, as well as face to face. In that context, real social interaction occurs,” Bertelsen says. “Cowboy Cauldron allows people — particularly in this transient, disposable digital age — the opportunity to interact on a very real or personal human basis, and I think that’s important.”
Starting a business making cauldrons wasn’t really Bertelsen’s plan. But he had gotten tired of the political pressure cooker of D.C. and wanted to raise his children in an environment like the one he’d enjoyed as a kid. So he and his family left Washington and moved back to Utah. There he continued to foster friendships and community around his Cauldron, and he eventually caved to his friends’ constant begging to make them replicas. Word got around, and friends of friends began to request them. Eventually Bertelsen decided to go for it and form a company. That was in 2008, but things really took off in 2010, when the Cauldron was featured on the cover of a Napa, California, culinary gift catalog.
Initially there were two models of cauldrons, both built by hand from solid plate steel: a large model called “The Ranch Boss” and a substantially smaller one called “The Urban Cowboy.” To meet growing demand and be able to offer a fuller range of options, the company has since come out with other models, “The Wrangler” and the latest (and smallest), “The Dude.”
“Anybody who sees a Cauldron loves it and wants one, but the big ones are pretty large, and not everybody has a place in their yard to keep one,” Bertelsen says. “Previously, size was sort of a limiting factor.” But with the addition of “The Dude,” it’s no longer an issue. “ ‘The Dude’ breaks down; it has segmented legs, so it can go in your car, to the beach, or in the storage unit of your condo. You can set it up by the pool at an apartment for a party, then take it down, or take it to a friend’s house, whatever. So I feel really good about expanding the ability for most people to be able to have live fire in their life.”
Besides their quick setup and takedown, extreme durability, and adjustable-height basin, Cauldrons are versatile — whether people are cooking or just congregating. When people use their Cauldron, it’s called a burn. The word is both a noun and a verb, used as a rallying cry for friends to join together around the fire.
“We really don’t sell a fire device,” Bertelsen explains. “We sell the hosting experience. Some people only burn them. Not everybody’s a foodie. Not everybody can cook on fire, but by and large, the Cauldron changes the way people entertain. It changes the way they use their yard. They also tend to sprout: If somebody has a Cauldron, pretty soon all of their friends have one, too.”
The great thing about the Cauldron that makes it different, he says, is that it’s beautiful, and it’s clean. “When you’re done, the next day you don’t have a bunch of burnt logs and blackened rocks sitting in your yard. You’ve got a piece of sculpture that looks as nice as it did before you used it. And there’s a big component of the seasonal extension of your outdoor life. You can snug right up under the Cauldron and be toasty warm on a really cold day or night. You can interact, and you can cook.”
Though the Cauldrons are used in many commercial settings, such as hotels and resorts, Bertelsen loves it that people choose them for their own backyards, because it’s so personal. The feedback from customers has been gratifying. “People love them. Our customers become zealots. I get telephone calls and emails of people from all around the world showing pictures of what they’re doing with their Cauldron.”
Having been a lawyer and a lobbyist with the impressive résumé that goes along with his former career, Bertelsen is proud of the fact that with the Cowboy Cauldron, he’s created something tangible. “When we’re done with a day’s work, there are physical objects that have value to people,” he says. “I think the most seminal piece for me was really early on when somebody came up to me and said, ‘That thing is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to buy one from you.’ I thought, Well, you know what, if that person who works hard for their money wants to spend it on something that I make, then it needs to be the best I can possibly make it.”
For more information about Cowboy Cauldron, visit the website at cowboycauldron.com.
From our October 2021 issue
Photography: (All images) courtesy Cowboy Cauldron