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From corporate to Christmas trees: building a business out of a local need



Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla

Chris Hohenstein is celebrating his 13th year operating City Tree Delivery this winter. What began as a rebellious business idea that challenged composting norms in the city has grown into a beloved holiday tradition for many Chicago families.

After getting let go from his accounting job, Chris could have re-entered the corporate world—instead, he pivoted, letting his long-held frustration toward Chicago’s missing recycling initiatives drive inspiration for a new seasonal business: Christmas tree deliveries and composting. The business that started as an online-only storefront has since grown to include annual pop-up tree lots across the city.

“It had nothing to do with me loving Christmas or growing up on a farm,” Chris said. “It was purely that I didn’t want to throw my Christmas tree away in January, and the city had limited recycling options.”

Putting passion in the driver’s seat

Chris started by talking to his local alderman to understand why there was such a lack of official recycling programs for Christmas trees—it was through that connection that he learned of a department grant for the environment. 

“I started working with the Department of Environment in Chicago to expand their Christmas tree recycling,” Chris said. “That’s really how it all began.” 

He attended local government events focused on environmental issues, taking care to promote the importance of recycling your tree. Chris had no prior experience owning his own business, so he started by talking through his business ideas with the groups he met at events like environmental breakfasts and iterated on them accordingly.

“I actually originally wanted to do potted plants, but the more people I talked to, the less practical that really [seemed], which is why I went with the whole service and recycling option,” Chris said. “That’s the nice thing about having your own business—it’s kind of like a real life science experiment.”

City Tree not only maintains its commitment to the environment through facilitating proper disposal of trees but also contributes annually to a variety of green initiatives and charities. In the past, the business has donated to Trees for the Future, Climate Cycle, and Terrapass, among others. 

Delivering holiday cheer 

Through partnerships with local tree farms, City Tree services residents throughout Chicago and its suburbs; though, finding vendors has been a challenge during the last two years due to a nationwide Christmas tree shortage, Chris said. 

A typical delivery consists of a visit to the client’s home during which two to three employees carry the tree inside the house and, if the customer has opted for the additional help, complete its setup. The team finishes with a thorough clean up, then at the end of the season, they return to remove it for proper recycling.

“We take them to recycling facilities ourselves, or if the suburbs offer [a program], we leave it out for them,” Chris said. “I question if any of that gets done [in the city]. If it doesn’t get set aside, it’s gonna end up in a landfill, which is why we started the whole thing to begin with.”

The pandemic marked a turning point in the methodology of Chris’s business—what used to be just calls and email inquiries transformed into online ordering, and the desire to avoid crowded spaces spurred an influx of new customers. 

“I just accelerated [online ordering] infinitely—I used to do tree lots and now, this year, I’m offering three popup lots, but it’s mostly pre-sale only, and that’s the big difference,” Chris said. “It’s really accelerated the online aspect, which is really what my business was based on—the convenience.”

Celebrating the (hiring) season year-round

Even though Chris’ sales season doesn’t begin until after Thanksgiving, the hiring process is an ongoing commitment. Early preparation is key—most of his employees are selected and confirmed by October at the very latest. 

“I reach out in the summer, starting with the people that were there last year to ask if they have friends,” Chris said. “I follow up every few months until October, and then I need to start getting some firm commitments, and that’s the challenge.” 

People of all backgrounds come together to work with City Tree Delivery, from artists to policemen, college students to neighborhood kids. Many return year after year, which makes Chris’s job a bit easier. 

Whether you’re a local business owner already or in the early stages of entrepreneurship, Chris leaves these tips to help make your journey smoother: 

  1. Learn how to determine the difference between a slow start and a non-starter. It’s no secret that starting a business presents leaders with a slew of roadblocks, many of which can’t be anticipated. But if you really believe in your product or service, persistence is paramount. “If people are happy with the service and you believe in it, you just have to stay the course,” Chris said. 
  1. Prepare early. While preparation is especially important for seasonal businesses, planning ahead reaps benefits no matter your business’s format. “Whether it’s a vendor, a client, an employee, whatever—a lot of the stuff I need to plan well in advance so the season goes smoothly,” Chris said. Keeping in contact with potential vendors and employees throughout the year can help you maintain the relationships you might need in the future. 
  1. The unknown can be intimidating, but it also presents an opportunity. What makes your business different also makes it special—there’s no need to confine your options solely to what has been done before. “There’s no rule book,” Chris said. “One thing changing causes another, and you just have to put all the pieces together to make it work.” 

Photos from City Tree Delivery on Yelp

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