CHICAGO — For many Chicagoans, Christmas isn't complete without a fresh-smelling Fraser Fir commanding attention in the living room.
But for the hundreds of families living in the city's most metropolitan swatches, without rugged four-doors or front doors accessible sans elevator, reality interferes.
"Before our kids, we would maybe put up a fake tree...but after we started our own family and started creating our own traditions, we decided that we definitely wanted a real tree," Jennifer Novak, a Wicker Park psychologist and mother of twin four-year-old girls said. "But when you live in the city, the whole process is just so much more time consuming and physically demanding."
Rhett Downing had similar problems when he and his wife tried to get a tree into their South Loop home. So when he noticed his artificial grass business, Rugzoom, had a recurring lull in business around December, he came up with a short-term plan to put his landscaping resources to use.
With a marketing degree in his back pocket that he'd hardly used since "renouncing office life" after two years at General Electric, Downing dreamed up Tree Santa, a Christmas tree delivery service that includes everything from stand rental to set up to light-hanging, customized for city-dwellers and staffed by a fleet of red-suited Santa lookalikes.
"My husband and I both agree real trees are better, but he's not into the whole hassle, so this saves us so much stress," Bethany Persons, 27, said as a "Tree Santa" erected a five-foot fir in her West Town apartment. Frank Russell, 40, was clean-shaven but dressed in a red jumpsuit and hat.
Russell is one of three rotating Tree Santas who ride shotgun in Downing's van making deliveries and pickups from Black Friday through Jan. 20.
Tree Santa combines the function of urban Christmas tree delivery services, an existing but unsaturated market in Chicago, with the form of a festive holiday tradition.
For some, Tree Santa himself is becoming a crucial part of Christmastime. Jennifer Novak used the service when it first launched last year, and said there was no question in her daughters' minds that Tree Santa would be back this season.
"My kids are fully convinced that he's a real functioning part of Santa's work team," Novak said. "He comes in with the full Santa suit, and he's got the tree over his shoulder, asks the girls if they've been good and gives them little mini stockings with candy canes stuffed inside. They're crazy about it. They just like to ogle at him. As long as they believe, I think we're definitely gonna be using him."
The Tree Santa operation doesn't have a complicated business plan, or sophisticated equipment. Downing orders trees in batches as he estimates need, and they improvise a lot, texting with customers to schedule deliveries, developing additional services like pruning visits or additional light deliveries when someone asks.
The fleet of Tree Santas are an equally scrappy bunch, making deliveries in high rises with broken elevators and even twice carrying trees on the CTA, but "we make sure the tree gets there," Downing said, except for the few buildings where live Christmas trees are banned.
The business has yet to turn a profit, but Downing's optimistic. He's giving it a few more years before he expects returns, and even if that never happens, he said there's a chance he'll keep running Tree Santa as a community service.
At this point, it's starting to become a tradition for Downing and his Tree Santas too.
"When we're in the truck with our [Santa] hats on the dash and the music going, it definitely gets you in the spirit," Downing said. "It makes it feel like Christmas, even without the snow."