It’s the busy season for Irwin Loiterstein. He has to schedule deliveries, calm anxious customers and extract countless pine needles from every fiber of his clothing.
Loiterstein is Jewish and St. Louis’ primary wholesaler of Christmas trees. He is a walking encyclopedia of Christmas tree growing, harvesting, retailing and marketing. If you want to know the nuances and peculiarities of the Fraser, balsam, Douglas or noble firs, or the difference between a Scotch pine and a white pine, Loiterstein is the guy to call.
After 50-plus years in the business, he still loves the logistics of transporting thousands of trees from Canada and North Carolina.
“The thing I like is the challenge of making it happen every year and working through all the kinks,” said Loiterstein, 75. “I’ve also made some wonderful friendships all over the country.”
On Sunday, Dec. 8, Loiterstein will greet 300 new and old friends. That’s the day he’ll be giving away Christmas trees to veterans. The Trees for Vets program is an initiative of the Kaufman Fund. Loiterstein is a board member of the fund, which supports veterans in the St. Louis area. This year marks the fifth straight holiday season that Loiterstein and his friends will give trees to veterans.
“It’s five Jewish guys giving away Christmas trees,” he said. “I was the chairman of the program, and I recruited friends to help because I couldn’t do it by myself. Albert Finkelstein takes care of gathering the names and scheduling the pickup, and Howard Berliner takes care of handing out the trees.”
Berliner spent 40 years in the footwear industry before retiring 12 years ago. He was looking for a new activity when he learned about the Kaufman Fund.
“I’m not a veteran, but my father was,” Berliner said. “My parents were very involved with Jewish War Veterans, so it’s something I’ve been supporting all my life. What we do is a great mitzvah. It’s nice that we’re giving them a tree, but it’s also about thanking them for their service and sacrifice for their country.”
Christmas tree business takes root
Loiterstein got into the Christmas tree business in 1967. He was in the first graduating class of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he earned a business degree. He was good with numbers, so he was hired by the IRS. After a year there, he joined the A.G. Edwards financial services company in the accounting department. Then the family business came calling.
“I married Sherre Schenberg, whose father was Harry Schenberg,” Loiterstein said. “He owned [Schenberg Markets]. My father-in-law also had the largest Passover food distributor in the Midwest. People in Chicago would come down and buy food from him. He also distributed Christmas trees. I don’t know how or why he got into it, and he’s not around to ask.”
Schenberg Markets, St. Louis’ first chain of grocery stores, was founded by Mitchell and Rose Schenberg in 1914. The last Schenberg store was in the Delmar Loop and closed in 1969. When Loiterstein was growing up in University City, he used to shop at that store. Then he married the storeowner’s youngest daughter. Harry Schenberg had heart surgery, after which he asked Loiterstein to go into business with him.
“We got along well, and eventually he went off into the yogurt business and I went into the Christmas tree business,” Loiterstein said. “At the time, a friend of mine went to work for Venture, and I supplied him with Christmas trees. We doubled our retail outlets because I knew this guy and suddenly we had 30 retail outlets.”
Eventually, Loiterstein became active in the National Christmas Tree Association, and he was chairman of the association’s market expansion committee.
“There was a Jewish guy before me as market expansion chair, and the two Jewish guys raised the most money for the association,” he said. “When I became chairman, we had 22 million trees sold and, by the time we were done, it was 33 million. That’s not because I was so great. I had a great team behind me, and the same was the case for the other Jewish guy. What’s interesting is there are very few Jews growing Christmas trees, most are in the retail end.”
Along the way, Loiterstein became knowledgeable about growing and harvesting techniques. Christmas tree farming is neither easy nor fast.
“It takes six to nine years to grow and harvest, so that’s a long time to wait,” he said. “There are other challenges to raising a tree — if the deer get it, or Mother Nature kills it, or you go broke. That’s why very few kids of farmers are going into the business.”
The joy of giving back
One result is that there is more demand than supply. During Loiterstein’s tenure as chairman of the association’s market expansion committee, he helped raise the number of trees sold, but supply began a downward spiral from a high of 44 million trees to half that number. Eventually, the supply leveled off at about 35 million.
A few years ago, Loiterstein stepped away from the day-to-day operation of his wholesale operation, but he still handles getting the product from the field to market. Business has always been steady for his company, Seasonable Sales. During the holiday season, they sell Christmas trees. The rest of the year, it’s lawn and garden products. That has often meant long road trips to the major tree growing regions in Michigan, Wisconsin and farther north.
“One day, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was up in Canada looking at trees, and the grower was on the phone with someone in Chicago who needed branches in 25- and 50-pound bundles,” Loiterstein said. “The grower couldn’t understand why he wanted them, so I talked to the guy. It was right before Yom Kippur, so I said, ‘You putting up a sukkah?’ He said, ‘What do you know about sukkahs?’ I said, ‘I know a lot about sukkahs!’ ”
Then he explained to the non-Jewish grower what the customer needed and helped broker a deal for the Chicago connection to get materials for his synagogue to use as a fundraiser.
Loiterstein recently provided garden tools to the mitzvah garden at Shaare Emeth, where he and his wife are members. If there’s a need for items for people in need, he’s quick to reach out to his many connections.
“I was reading the synagogue bulletin, and they said they needed 80 blankets for the homeless,” he said. “I figured, one at a time is going to be tough to get, so I called a guy I knew and said I need 80 blankets. He said, ‘I’ll give you 100,’ so the beginning of this week I delivered 100 blankets to the homeless. But that’s what my parents did, and they taught us kids to give back.”
Loiterstein used to go to Christmas tree lots and watch happy families load their car with the trees he had shipped down to the Midwest. Now, he looks forward to seeing the faces of veterans during the Trees for Vets giveaway.
“We’ve always given away trees, like to the juvenile court for the kids parties,” he said. “One year, they had a tree down by the Compton Heights Water Tower on South Grand. I read that the tree had been stolen, so I called the police and I said I wanted to donate a tree. They said, ‘Mister, it’s useless, they’ll steal it again.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got 28,000 trees sitting here. Let’s see how fast they can keep up with us.’
“It turned out only the one tree was stolen. For me, it’s the pleasure of doing it. That’s what you do. That’s how I was raised.”