Meet the Jewish St. Louisan who’s the “king of Christmas trees”

Irwin+Loiterstein+Profile%0ASt.+Louis+Jewish+Light%0Aby+Bill+Motchan

Irwin Loiterstein Profile St. Louis Jewish Light by Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

December has always been the busy season for Irwin Loiterstein. He is a walking encyclopedia of Christmas tree growing, harvesting, retailing and marketing. Loiterstein, who is Jewish, has for many years been St. Louis’ primary wholesaler of Christmas trees.

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.”

Those friends include many veterans who lack the means to buy a Christmas tree. Loiterstein has been an integral member of The Kaufman Fund’s “Trees for Vets” program. He recently retired from his involvement with The Kaufman Fund, but he will still help them obtain trees.

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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 A. G. Edwards in the accounting department. Then the family business came calling.

“I married Sherre Schenberg, whose father was Harry Schenberg,” Loiterstein said. “He owned the grocery store. 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 was St. Louis’ first chain of grocery stores 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 U. City, he used to shop at that store. Then he married the store owner’s youngest daughter. After Harry Schenberg had heart surgery, 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. 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.”

One result is 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. 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!’”

He then 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 fund-raiser. 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 I delivered the blankets to the homeless. But that’s what my parents did and they taught us kids to give back.”