December 10, 2015
It’s the smell that you notice first — the fresh, clean scent of pine and fir.
It permeates the greenhouse’s interior, nearly overwhelming as you step through the door. Woodland greens and velvet reds attract the eye, but it’s your nose that draws you in. A deeply fragrant forest smell that sparks a memory in people of Christmas in Montana.
It’s one of the benefits to working and shopping at the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse in Missoula — one that business co-owner, Shane Clouse, is not ashamed to exploit.
“Whether you go to Sydney or London or New York, people are just enamored with Montana and what it means,” Clouse said. “Wherever they are in the world, they just love the state and want to support it in some way. So folks find MontanaWreaths.com and they can buy a product that’s harvested from the state, made by somebody in the state, and when they get it in a box that comes to their door, they can smell Montana before they even open it up.”
“We’re touching several emotions with this,” he added. “We’re utilizing people’s love of Montana and a natural product that’s part of people’s Christmas tradition. It’s an integral part of our business.”
The Clouse family has been selling Christmas trees to locals from their farm on the outskirts of Missoula for more than 35 years. With the dawn of the computer age, they expanded into new markets, establishing a Christmas wreath delivery business using the brand name MontanaWreaths.com.
“I think in the first year we sold 13 wreaths,” Shane Clouse said of that first disappointing foray into Internet sales.
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But they stuck with it, and in the process soon discovered that one of their greatest marketing assets was the Montana mystique and a sentimental connection people have to the smell of fresh evergreen.
Today, 22 employees harvest, craft, box and ship approximately 5,000 Christmas wreaths for MontanaWreaths every year. Orders are regularly sent to nearly every state in the union, and in the final weeks before Christmas, are being shipped out by the hundreds every day.
The season-ending crush requires Clouse and business manager, Leah Rediske, to put in 65-hour workweeks starting the day after Thanksgiving.
“Much of the marketing is simply word of mouth — a son, mother, brother or friend with a connection to Montana,” Rediske said. “We get about 200 orders at a time, along with multiple corporate orders. Florida, Arizona, California and Texas are the big states that we ship to, and we probably send 50 wreaths a year to Hawaii and Alaska.”
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MontanaWreaths customers are given the option of including a personal message with their order. The messages are typically typed in over the Internet, but Rediske takes the time to transcribe each message into a handwritten note.
“Something to bring a scent of Montana to your southern California home,” read one note accompanying a West Coast shipment.
Rediske said it was a very common sentiment.
Lynn Clouse watches while two of the family dogs overseeBuy Photo
Lynn Clouse watches while two of the family dogs oversee the Christmas-wreath making operation at the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse in Missoula (Photo: Tribune photo/David Murray)
A particularly touching response came in 2012, when a local military support organization sent 50 Christmas wreaths (all donated by the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse) to a Montana National Guard unit stationed in Afghanistan. Clouse said he received several letters that year from soldiers and their families telling him how much the wreaths meant to the men and women serving so far from home during the Christmas season.
“All the guys coming off duty — searching for IEDs or whatever other dangerous job they had — when they got on base, before they even got into the mess hall for mail call, they could smell Montana. That was pretty profound to me. Here we are making a product out of tree branches. We put them in a circle, make them pretty and put a bow on it, but it touches people’s emotions.”
Work on the wreaths begins after the first hard frost in October. Following the sudden jolt of cold air, the noble fir, grand fir, cedar, Douglas fir and alpine fir trees the work crews harvest from enter into dormancy. This inactive phase of tree biology helps to ensure the boughs remain fresh for months to come.
Many of the tree branches MontanaWreaths uses come from forests on the Flathead Indian Reservation. A long-standing business agreement with the Confederated Salish/Kootenai Tribes means the wreath-making operation brings added seasonal employment to tribal members there.
“The Christmas tree and forestry industry is big business for them,” Clouse said of his strong relationship with the tribes. “We have several tree cutters there that we’ve been doing business with for over 30 years.”
Constructing the wreaths begins to ramp up in Missoula beginning in November. Many of the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse employees are college students from the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation.
Business co-owner Shane Clouse left a Fortune 500 corporateBuy Photo
Business co-owner Shane Clouse left a Fortune 500 corporate job more than a decade ago to manage operations at his family business in Missoula. (Photo: Tribune photo/David Murray)
“We always have more applicants that we really have room for — which is a great problem to have,” Clouse said. “Most of these kids who are involved with the forestry program, they want to work outside — they like working with their hands. They’re less inclined to want to sit at a desk, so it’s perfect for what we have going on.”
“I found out about this job at a forestry club meeting,” UM student Devan Woblston said. “It really goes hand-in-hand with my studies. That’s why I was definitely interested in this job.”
While the pace of work is steady and the hours can be long, Clouse does his best to keep the work environment casual and friendly. Turnover at the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse is low, and several of the employees have been coming back for years.
This same combination of a casual atmosphere, creativity, and the opportunity for a hands-in-the-soil career brought Shane Clouse back to Montana more than a decade ago.
Located less than a mile from downtown Missoula, theBuy Photo
Located less than a mile from downtown Missoula, the Pink Grizzly Greenhouse has been selling Christmas trees and wreaths to local residents for more than 30 years. (Photo: Tribune photo/David Murray)
“For eight years I worked for a Fortune 500 tobacco company doing event marketing for pro rodeo and NASCAR,” Clouse said. “I lived in L.A., I lived in the Portland area, and I loved the hustle and bustle back when I was in my 20s — but I always really wanted to come back to Montana.”
Clouse said that at first, several of his corporate colleagues were puzzled when he made the decision to exit the fast lane and return to Montana. He still stays in touch with a few of them. Their sense of confusion regarding Clouse’s choice of career has now been replaced with envy.
“Most of them say, ‘You know, I think about you when I’m stuck here in 14 lanes of traffic driving north out of the valley, and I think — Shane’s making Christmas wreaths right now.’”
Purchasing a wreath
To send a wreath to an out-of-state friend, go montanawreaths.com. Cost varies from $35.95 for a standard wreath to $44.95 for a Montana select wreath