WICKER PARK — For two months out of the year, when City Tree Delivery sets up shop outside of Big Star, the rich fragrance of freshly cut Fraser fir trees almost eclipses the smell of the popular restaurant's tacos.
Now in its fourth holiday season and second year in the Big Star outdoor eating area at 1531 N. Damen Ave., owner Chris Hohenstein, who operates out of a parked RV strung with Christmas lights, believes his tree lot is a better choice than shopping at a big box retailer.
Hohenstein knows he can't compete on price with retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's, but he hopes he can offset that with exceptional personal service and convenience.
He also seems to have an answer for Sandra Bullock's character in the Chicago-set comedy "While You Were Sleeping." Bullock's character Lucy laments breaking a window while trying to get a Christmas tree into her North Side apartment, "$38 for a Christmas tree and they don't deliver? You order $10 worth of chow mein from Mr. Wong and they bring it to your door."
City Tree Delivery will not only deliver for free your Christmas tree purchase, for a small fee it will set up the tree and return after the holidays and take the tree away for recycling.
"Big box retailers, their trees come from all over the country, many take short cuts, pay minimum wage, or do not necessarily care how they dispose of waste at the end of the year. I once asked another lot what they did with unsold trees and they said they put them in the Dumpster in Iowa, " Hohenstein said.
The entrepreneur buys his trees from a Michigan farm and donates 1 percent of his profits to Chicago schools and parks.
If a recent busy afternoon of deliveries was any indication, City Tree Delivery's business model is winning over fans by the dozen daily.
At Division Street's Nando Milano Trattoria, manager JJ Schiappa, 24, was happy to receive the 25 feet of garland from deliveryman Ben Leikness that he'd ordered after having gone to Home Depot first.
"All [Home Depot] had for garland that I saw was white pine. I am big on Christmas and know that's not the best. I remembered seeing that Big Star had trees and garlands, so I stopped there."
Ben Leikness 24, a freelance photographer's assistant, is in his second year of delivering and setting up trees for Hohenstein, who has a team of three helpers including full-time lot manager that mans City Tree's lot at Big Star while Hohenstein works days as a financial consultant in a downtown cubicle.
Wednesday was Leikness' first day back on the job for the season.
"It's a great job, really fun. Last year, everything went really well except for one giant bag that ripped open and exploded down two flights of carpeted stairs. That was the only hiccup," he recalled.
In addition to recycling trees for an additional charge of $30, City Tree Delivery partners with a non-profit organization that plants one new tree for every tree ordered through Hohenstein's company, to help reduce its carbon footprint.
In a Lakeview living room, real estate broker Luisa Jurado was very happy to see Leikness and delivery partner, Anthony D'Andrea, 22.
"We've always had a fake tree. This is our first real tree," said Jurado, who found out about City Tree Delivery while searching online for local Christmas tree sellers. "My husband loved the fact they do delivery, set up, everything. He's a dentist and very busy and would rather not do anything."
The Jurado family ordered a 6-foot tree, which is about average for most homes, Hohenstein said, adding that the most popular tree ordered is 6-7 feet tall and ranges in price from $72 to $84. Most trees are priced at $12 per foot and garland goes for $2 per foot.
The City Tree lot is open daily from Thursdays to Tuesdays until Sunday, Dec. 23. Hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Their phone number is 312-476-9627.