The Christmas spirit faced a severe test on 17th Street NW, where in the weeks after Thanksgiving, rival tree vendors competed on restaurant patios mere blocks apart. Could jobs be at stake?
“There was no competition—we kicked the guy’s butt,” says a triumphant Debby Hanrahan, who organized a charity tree sale at the corner of R Street, on the patio of the Dupont Italian Kitchen. In just two weekends, her group of 12 volunteers sold its full inventory of 267 trees. The net proceeds of her sale, about $10,000, went to the library and an after-school tutoring program at nearby Ross Elementary School. Says Hanrahan, “That’s capitalism, right?”
Yes, answers the competition. “She’s a tough old broad, and we had that space first,” says Stephen Oshins. “But there’s no hard feelings.” Oshins owns the for-profit operation two blocks away on the patio of Peppers restaurant, near the corner of Church Street. He concedes defeat.
“She takes 50 percent of our business,” he says. “We’re way down from our glory days. And that’s exclusively because of her….That’s life. I’ve had to adapt. I don’t think I’ve spent five minutes thinking about her other than hoping she won’t show up each year.” Even in good times, he says, it would take him 30 days to reach the sales that Hanrahan racked up in a little more than four.
With 10 years’ experience on 17th Street, Oshins is the city’s leading expert on the Dupont East Christmas-tree market. About six years ago, he moved to Peppers after his “landlord,” the former La Fonda restaurant, kicked him out and donated the space to Hanrahan’s group. (Hanrahan moved just across the street to the Italian Kitchen when La Fonda closed.) “She got in on the sympathy,” he says, adding that he has had to price his trees lower to stay in business.
So might Hanrahan’s feel-good business strategy lead to holiday layoffs at her competitor? Oshins says he still makes a profit where he is. Besides, he’s not exactly Tiny Tim. “I like to be the only asshole in the room,” he says, explaining why he’s not putting his MBA to use in corporate America. Oshins admits he may say “snide things” about Hanrahan’s trees on occasion.
Hanrahan says both businesses get their trees—Colorado blue spruces, Fraser firs, Douglas firs, and balsam firs—from the same wholesaler. She says there’s no conflict.
On the Peppers patio, Ernesto Roma, who helps Oshins sell his trees, is more media-savvy than his friend. “My kid’s in D.C. public schools,” he says, “so I’m a supporter, as you can imagine. They need all the help they can get. CP