Two years ago, Max Kirchoff — hundreds of miles from his family and nostalgic for the holidays of his childhood — decided to buy his first Christmas tree.
PORTLAND — Two years ago, Max Kirchoff — hundreds of miles from his family and nostalgic for the holidays of his childhood — decided to buy his first Christmas tree.
But he didn't have a car. In true Portland fashion, he had ditched it when he moved here a few years earlier and commuted by bike.
So he pedaled to a local Christmas tree farm, picked one out, strapped it to his back and pedaled home. "It just made sense to me," Kirchoff said. "It's just how I got around, and I wanted to get one for our house, and that's what it came down to."
During his ride home, he got some honking and yelling, but not from the usual angry motorists. "With the tree, you get an entirely different response," Kirchoff said. "People honk at you because they're excited about what you're doing."
A year later, the experience led to the birth of Trees By Bike, a way for Kirchoff to unite holiday cheer with a staple of Portland culture — the bike — and along the way make some money for charity. He recruited a few cyclist friends, and the Yule Riders hopped into the saddle and began delivering Christmas trees — 40 by the end of the holidays — to homes across Portland.
Now in its second year, Trees By Bike remains a modest operation, but it is growing and expects to bring in five times more revenue this year.
But for Kirchoff and his Yule Riders, that's not really the point. Trees By Bike this year is donating 10 percent of its revenue to Project Grow, a nonprofit that advocates for developmentally challenged adults and helps them earn money through gardening and selling their artwork.
And since he doesn't see it turning into a business he could retire on, Kirchoff hopes at some point to convert to a nonprofit. "It just makes sense for me that this is a nonprofit," he said. "I did this to help out people who need some money in the holidays."
He says he got into it because of those reactions he got on that first yule ride.
"It brings out the stuff I like to see in people, the goodness, the humanity," Kirchoff said. "I'm a real sucker for that kind of stuff."
Kirchoff started this season with 100 trees, but the way business is going, he'll have to go back for more.
"If there is such an outcry, I'm open to going back for more trees, absolutely," he said. This year, he predicts Trees By Bike could deliver as many as 200 trees.
He has brought other changes to the tiny company. He altered the delivery map to better serve what he calls his main demographic, and he bumped up prices to buy higher-quality trees and pay his Yule Riders a little extra.
The prices, which include the tree, range from $32.50 to $50, which he said is competitive with other farms. The trees are kept at the North Portland Farm on North Williams Avenue, so Yule Riders usually only deliver to North, Northeast and Southeast Portland, downtown near the waterfront and downtown Vancouver during the weekends. But with increasing demand, Kirchoff has considered opening up several lots throughout the city next year to serve more areas.
"We had someone interested in West Linn, and the only problem is it's a 3-hour ride round trip," he said. That doesn't make sense for the riders, who get paid about $10 per delivery trip, plus $5 for each additional delivery within a certain number of blocks.
The close-knit Yule Riders shrug off the physical demands that come with the seasonal job. "Max knows most of the cyclists and knows what they're capable of," said Ben Guernsey, a Yule Rider and close friend of Kirchoff's who is in town visiting from New York. Guernsey had just dismounted after a particularly fruitful delivery — the family even tipped him.
"I get tipped every time, but that's because I talk to everyone for like 20 minutes," Kirchoff said. "I love what we do for a reason — this is emotional for me, and I think it's emotional for a lot of people."
That makes the lack of profitability and the physical demands easier to absorb. Last year, Trees By Bike didn't break even, but this year Kirchoff hopes for a slight profit — and to donate about $500 to Project Grow.
In the future, Kirchoff wants to take the time to transition Trees By Bike to nonprofit status. And he's been asked if he would consider doing deliveries on other holidays, such as Valentine's Day, but that's not the reason he started this.
"The Christmas trees are why I do this, not the bikes, oddly enough," he said. "The bikes are circumstantial in this venture."