Pop-up Christmas tree businesses

Big John’s started out selling ice cream, but found passion in trees

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FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. – In November, many Americans start to notice the appearance of pop-up Christmas tree lots in local shopping centers and open fields.

Though there are many local and national growers and sellers, there are some chains that have emerged in the Atlanta area.

One such chain is Big John’s Christmas Trees, which is now owned and operated by the sons of the late John Livaditis.

Livaditis first began his career by opening his own ice cream shop under the Zesto Drive-In franchise.

He then moved into Christmas trees in 1949 after a stranger approached his ice cream shop and asked to sell Christmas trees on his property during the winter.

Livaditis kicked off his tree business and when he passed, his two sons Jimmy and Lee took over their father’s Zesto locations and his Christmas tree trade.

According to Jimmy, John would travel directly to places like Canada, Wisconsin and Michigan for weeks at a time to hand-pick the best trees he could find. Now, his two sons have taken on the same mission, traveling all over North America in pursuit of quality trees.

“I look at Christmas trees as a work of art,” Jimmy said. “Some of them are like fine wines and take years to make.”

At Big John’s, the most common type of tree sold is the Fraser, but the lots offer up to nine or 10 other varieties.

Jimmy said serious tree shoppers should consider each tree’s balance, symmetry, proportions, texture, “triangularity,” color and ability to be decorated.

“You also want to have strong, stiff branches and make sure the needles snap instead of bending [when you touch them],” Jimmy said.

Big John’s recommends that shoppers know their space and know exactly where they want to put their tree before picking one out.

Finally, Jimmy pointed out that trees exposed to constant sources of heat, such as vents and fireplaces, may not fare as well as trees that are placed further away from those areas.

From a business standpoint, even Big John’s faces challenges when working with live trees. Each lot owner must keep their trees fresh and keep the inventory moving. The trees must also be protected from bad weather and treated delicately to ensure they maintain their appearance. Since the trees travel from long distances, they can easily be damaged in transit.

Outside of the challenges of preserving the trees, lot owners also face the perils that come with the seasonality of this industry. Because their Christmas tree business only brings in revenue during the holidays, the Livaditis family relies on its Zesto Drive-In stores as its bread and butter throughout the rest of the year.

Despite these quirks, Jimmy says that the Big John’s Christmas Trees business is a labor of love.

“We get to celebrate Christmas with Atlanta every day,” he said.

Although the entire family pitches in, Big John’s employs about 150 to 200 full- and part-time employees among its 13 different locations each year.

“It’s easy to find employees,” Jimmy said. “People love coming out here, being outdoors, and being with people in this type of environment where everyone is happy and excited.”