To Build a Fire: Matt Kenevan and The Firewood Project

I don’t often open a story with a disclosure, but here it is: Matt Kenevan used to be my boss. As owner of the Beer Dabbler and publisher of The Growler, he was the guy who signed my checks for the nearly two years I spent as an honest-to-God magazine food editor. He hired me, and when COVID destroyed his beer festival business and the advertising revenue for the magazine, he was the one who – with tears brimming in his eyes – laid off me and most of my co-workers. When you work for a guy, you to get to know him, so here’s Matt: he’s straight-to-the-point, he takes care of his people, and he lives to work.

That’s why I was only a little surprised to find out that amid several national crises and the total reinvention of his business, Matt had started in December chopping and donating many dozens of cords of firewood to support local independent breweries and encampments for those experiencing homelessness.

“I’m averaging, on a good week, 20 cords of wood I’m giving away,” Kenevan says. “This week I was out of wood a couple of days, so it’s closer to 16.” Kenevan gets his wood from tree care companies that would otherwise dispose of it, generally ash or elm, and pays out of his pocket about $200-300 per truckload for transportation. Expenses run about $500 a week, and any extra money tends to go to people in need at the camps – “If we have funds left over, I’ll buy socks, I’ll buy tents, I’ll buy sleeping bags – I’ll buy whatever I need to buy for whatever scenario I encounter, it’ll all go to good use.” He’s creating a nonprofit called Dabbler and Friends to formalize the effort, but he’s pushing forward with his work full steam in the meantime. “I don’t have time to wait for things, the need is now,” he says.

A December event to help food industry workers hosted with Brian Ingram of Hope Breakfast Bar and Woodfired Cantina spurred the project. “I brought the whole staff over to volunteer and one of the jobs we had was getting the firewood from Woodfired Cantina,” says Kenevan. “We loaded up the van with firewood and brought it over there, and it took no time for them to burn it.” Kenevan had the equipment to split wood and Dabbler creative director Brian Kaufenberg had a bunch of it at his house, so they improvised a solution to keep the event warm and toasty.

That turned into the current, broader effort that is aimed at supporting local breweries as well as encampments for those experiencing homelessness. “I started just helping breweries and bars out who under government [closure] orders couldn’t afford wood – these guys are running $600-1,000 a week for wood, while running at a percentage of their capacity outdoors in the dead of winter in Minnesota, and I thought: ‘I can help with that,’” says Kenevan. “And I thought, well, along with that, I can split wood for homeless camps as well.”

The cost and effort of the firewood project is substantial, but Kenevan doesn’t mind. When I ask him why he’s doing it, he replies: “It’s kind of a selfish answer, but it makes me feel good. I’m using that to fuel the campaign. Instead of sitting around and being doom and gloom, woe is me, I’m getting up and getting out and getting the opportunity I can to cut wood. […] It takes your mind off of the bad that’s around us. The political stuff… not that I’m not paying attention to that, but it also puts hope in my heart to think about other things.”

You can support Kenevan’s firewood project by learning more or volunteering through his Facebook profile, mailing a check or gift card to 360 Toronto Street, St. Paul, 55102, or by contributing money via Venmo at jeannie-kenevan.