Santa Claus and two of his elves pedaled their bicycles across Fort Avenue and up Woodall Street, stopping beside an apartment across from the Domino Sugar Factory.
With Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" blasting from a boombox — and a handful of curious neighbors looking on — the trio carefully unloaded their cargo: A six-and-a-half-foot Douglas fir and a pulled pork sandwich. Up the stairway they went.
Christmas had officially arrived at Marilyn Agro's home. Lunch, too.
The man behind the fake white beard was 29-year-old Jason Toraldo, a recruiter for a Johns Hopkins University gifted-and-talented program. Last month, he started Pork N' Pine, a combination of Christmas trees and sliced meat that taps into a niche market Baltimore never knew it had.
"People just aren't expecting Santa Claus on a bike, to show up with a boombox playing Christmas tunes, with a Christmas tree on the back and a pulled-pork sandwich in his hand," said Toraldo, who stopped taking orders last week and will be delivering his last tree before Saturday. "This is my first season, so I'm still trying to work out the kinks. But people seem to be enjoying the experience."
Back in October, Toraldo was brainstorming business ideas with his longtime friend Don Scholl when they hatched the idea for Pork N' Pine. He'd long thought about opening a much-needed tree lot in Federal Hill, he said, but was never able to secure a location. Meanwhile, Scholl's father had dreams of starting a pulled-pork business on the side.
"I said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could combine the two?'" Toraldo recalled.
The friends quickly figured they were onto something. "We started thinking about names, bouncing ideas back and forth," he said. "'Pork N' Pine' just kinda sounded right."
Toraldo soon got in touch with his friend's dad, also named Don. He thought the idea sounded a little odd, but was game to try.
"I've been making pulled pork, just because I enjoy it and like cooking, for six, seven years," said the elder Scholl, who works for Lowe's in Severn and part-time for United Parcel Service. "I figured he could just throw out some pulled pork with his deliveries, as a means to introduce myself to a broader customer."
Scholl didn't realize his pork would be a key component of Toraldo's business. But he wasn't surprised.
"He's kind of crazy," Scholl said with a laugh.
So far, Toraldo seems to have the market cornered.
"I haven't heard of anything quite like that," said Wilma Muir, president of the 100-member Maryland Christmas Tree Association. Not only does Pork N' Pine offer one of the few tree delivery services in Baltimore, she notes, but their menu is unique as well.
"Some places, they can buy refreshments, or they maybe offer hot cider or popcorn," Muir said. "But nothing like this."
Toraldo cuts the trees himself, at a farm in Harford County, and charges his customers $45. Because he likes the idea of an eco-friendly tree-delivery service, Toraldo straps the newly cut pine to a trailer attached to the back of his bike and pedals his way to his customers' doors — provided they live within two miles or so of his South Baltimore home.
Upon arriving, he'll turn on a boombox playing Christmas tunes, show off a few dance steps and make about as merry as the neighborhood will allow.
"My husband and I were sitting up on the second floor of our house when I heard all this Christmas music outside," says Christine Bonanno, an administrator for the Baltimore Museum of Art who lives in Federal Hill and saw a flier for Pork N' Pine while buying dinner at a Light Street deli. "And there was Santa on a bike, with our tree. All the neighbors started coming out, because of the music. It was great."
Even if customers live beyond the range of Santa's pedal power, that's no deterrent — Santa will just pull up in a van. And from there, the performance is pretty much the same.
"There are all kinds of nutty things you can get delivered to you — why not a tree?" asked Julie Sandhaus, who had a tree-and-sandwich combo delivered to her in Lauraville, much to the embarrassment of her daughters, who didn't appreciate the spotlight a dancing Santa shone on their home.
"Our teenage daughters, they looked out the window and yelled down, 'We're not coming down, mom.' But I think it's a good idea. You get the tree, the delivery, and you get pork barbecue. I mean, why not?"
Business has been good, said Toraldo, who's just finished his second weekend of delivering trees. So far, his advertising has been limited to word of mouth, Internet postings, a handful of fliers distributed throughout the area and working the pre-game crowd at a Ravens game last month.
Toraldo figures he'll have delivered about 20 trees and sandwiches before the season is up. He's looking to expand next year — get started earlier, maybe rent a limousine to make out-of-neighborhood deliveries even flashier. Pork N' Pine's got a Facebook page, which should help keep interest building even when the holidays are over.
Marilyn Agro, for one, remains a true believer. As Santa and his elves pedaled their way back to Toraldo's apartment to prepare for another delivery, she and her family couldn't stop laughing and smiling.
"It was a lot easier, because I didn't have to do any of the manual labor," she said. "The tree looks great, and you get a pulled-pork sandwich. How can you beat that?"