V1 Classic: Who the heck is Bryan?
the man behind the lots of Xmas trees and pumpkins
You’ve noticed his name carefully painted on wooden signs in high traffic areas. You’ve perused his pumpkins on the corner of Menomonie and Clairemont. You’ve ogled his trees on the corner of London and Golf. But who is this Bryan?
A decidedly behind-the-scenes kind of guy, Eau Claire resident Bryan Waughtal grows and sells seasonal decorative items – pumpkins in the fall, Christmas trees in early winter, and landscape trees in the springtime. All four of his stations in Eau Claire – plus the ones in Menomonie, Baldwin, and Black River Falls – are self-service.
Starting out almost 20 years ago in Eau Claire, Bryan paid attendants to take money in the tiny vertical shacks that now function more like safety deposit boxes. “Labor is a big factor in any business,” said Bryan, so he made the transition.
“You don’t have someone hounding you,” he said of the self-pay system, mentioning that individual taste is unpredictable and impossible to advise. “Some people like the oddest trees -- what I think is odd, at least,” he said. And the fact that the lots are “open” 24/7 means people can go Frasier fir-hunting at three in the morning, if they want.
“I have sold trees in the middle of the night. I’ll come in the morning at eight, and there’ll be a tree or two gone,” he said.
Sometimes, when he makes the daily rounds to empty the cash boxes, handwritten notes are mixed in with the checks and bills. “They’ll leave their name and phone number saying they didn’t have $10 at the time, but will come back later,” he said. “Sometimes there’s more money in there than are pumpkins gone, and I don’t really know why. Maybe some feel guilty and come back … every time they look at the pumpkin they feel that conscience.”
Most of what Bryan has learned from running a business on the honor system reflects positively on consumers. Shoppers are often unwilling to give money directly to Bryan, thinking he’s “just a delivery guy” or “not the real Bryan.” “They know it goes in the box and then it’s sealed and that’s where it’s supposed to be,” he said, shrugging.
Stealing hasn’t proved to be much of an issue, and what has been lifted has been caught on camera and rectified by the police. Predictably, pumpkins are taken more often than trees. “The kinds of people that put up a Christmas tree aren’t going to put up a stolen one,” he said.
Tending to evergreens since the 1980s, Bryan has already seen a shift in the amount of effort and knowledge invested throughout the growing process, resulting in straighter, less sticky specimens. He said the fact that people are slowly gravitating back to real Christmas trees is a sign of the times. “The energy source is the sun, which is limitless, and they’re usually grown on marginal land. They protect the soil. It’s a very simple, low-cost recycling program,” he said. In contrast, Bryan says fake trees are made in China, can often contain lead-based paint, and aren’t recyclable.
Pumpkins are different these days, too, representing deeper and more varied colors, bigger stems, and unusual textures – bumps and boils and warty growths are in vogue nowadays. These are a far cry from the pale garden-grown pumpkins Bryan used to sell from his mom’s yard when he was 15.
Though Bryan contracts a seasonal crew to help him wrangle the trees and jack-o-lanterns-to-be to their respective lots (and accepts help from his wife), the business is mostly orchestrated by Bryan himself. And with a clear-cut growing and selling season, Bryan has off throughout all of January, February, and March. “I love it in January. I get to play around, watch TV, read the paper while everyone else is scraping their cars. But then it gets to a point where I get bored. You just feel better having a schedule.”