The fir is flying in federal court!
Evergreen East, a Wisconsin-based Christmas tree cooperative that bills itself as “New York’s finest Christmas tree sellers,” alleges Home Depot, Whole Foods and their supplier conspired last year to scam Big Apple tree buyers by labeling cheaper Canadian Balsam firs as pricey Fraser firs — the Cadillac of conifers, according to court papers.
Frasers are famous for the two-tone color of their needles, dark green on top with a silver underside.
The Manhattan federal court complaint alleges that during the 2019 Christmas season, the retailers “sold potentially hundreds of thousands of Balsam Fir trees which they intentionally mislabeled and falsely advertised as Fraser Fir trees.”
The Frasers are sold on Manhattan sidewalks by Evergreen’s mom-and-pop shop clients for upwards of $179 for a 6-footer and $699 for a 12-footer.
The fugazi firs being sold by the big retailers — which came from North Carolina-based supplier Bottomley Evergreen — start at just $80 for a 6-footer, said Evergreen East president Kevin Hammer, 64.
He said the fictitious firs crippled the competition — and cheated unsuspecting tree shoppers.
“I’ve been doing this for 47 years. We are not a pimple on Bottomley’s ass,” the Bensonhurst-bred Hammer raged to The Post. “We are a cooperative that has been selling trees retail exclusively in New York City since 1974.”
Hammer said New Yorkers want what they pay for.
“Home Depot is not Canal street where you buy a fake Gucci bag. People go in there and see a tree from Canada and [don’t realize] it’s second or third-rate,” he said.
He also told the Post that corrupt Christmas wholesalers also harvest trees earlier than they should, and often ship them from Canada to North Carolina so they can falsely tag them as Carolina-grown.
Hammer says his trees are fresher, of the higher-quality Fraser variety and are actually grown in North Carolina — and the steeper price reflects this.
“You are paying for a Gucci bag — and you’re getting a Gucci bag!” he said.
Bottomley Evergreen boasts that its farms are located “in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina and western part of Virginia” and they have been “providing top-quality Fraser Fir Christmas trees” since they opened in 1990.
But the complaint claims Bottomley imported 100,000 or more Canadian Balsams in 2019 “and laundered those trees via its retail partners. The defendants had knowledge that they were labeling, marketing, advertising, and selling Balsam Fir trees which were falsely designated Fraser Fir.”
Hammer claimed to the Post that Bottomley made Home Depot and Whole Foods an “accomplice to a scam.”
The lawsuit, filed in January, alleges that on Dec. 16, 2019, Home Depot “was put on written notice that it was selling falsely-labeled Bottomley Christmas Trees.”
Home Depot “took no prompt remediative efforts” to stop the fir fraud, the suit charges, adding the home-improvement titan “continued selling counterfeit trees for days, and likely for the entire selling season.”
Evergreen has struggled in recent years to secure an adequate supply of high-quality Fraser Fir trees and, due to the scarcity of those trees, has had to pay a premium for them which has significantly reduced its profit margins, the suit says.
The “willful false advertising” suit seeks unspecifed damages, attorneys fees and for the defendants to “account for every Christmas tree they sold in 2019 labeled or sold as a Fraser Fir.” Evergreen wants whatever profit was made “for each tree sold which the defendants cannot prove was actually a Fraser Fir.”
Home Depot corporate spokeswoman Margaret Watters Smith called the Christmas kerfuffle “an isolated labeling error.” “Once we learned of it, we worked with the supplier to verify proper tagging on future deliveries,” she said.
Attorneys for Whole Foods and Bottomley have filed motions to dismiss, essentially saying customers could not see the forest from the Christmas trees. They argued the complaint fails to prove “that the purported mislabeling of trees influenced the purchasing decision of the public in any way.”