We had the good fortune of connecting with Ben Ramirez Reed and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ben, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
I’ve always been an environmentally minded person. From a very young age I would wonder out into the woods just to stare up in wonder at the trees and the birds in them. My first job, that lasted for 18 years, was working with and around dogs. During that time I went to SUNY Cortland college in New York and got my Bachelor’s degree in Conservation Biology. After I stopped working with dogs, I started my own business making dog supplies with leather. But this always grated on my environmental concerns. Leather just isn’t great for the environment. Massive swaths of rainforest are cleared everyday, often to make room for pasture land for the cows that leather comes from. I knew that there had to be a better option than leather out there. After quite a bit of searching I found a brand new textile called Piñatex, made by a company called Ananas Anam based in the UK. Piñatex is this amazing material made from up-cycled pineapple leaves left over from harvesting and canning the fruit. Piñatex looks and feels like some of the most high quality leather. Even better, it’s more water resistant than leather and even holds up to wear and tear better. Since it’s made from left over pineapple leaves, it doesn’t need extra land, water, or fertilizer to produce it. It’s one of the best alternative to leather for everyone who cares about our planet and our environment. Every entrepreneur and many people out there can relate to the flood of ideas that just rush into your head when you see or hear something new. That happened to me the first time I held a sample of Piñatex. I teamed up with my long time friend Pima Mbwana. Pima is co-founder of The Cut Buddy, season 9 Shark Tank winner. In April 2020 we launched our idea for stylish, safe, and sustainable dog supplies made with Piñatex and designed for dog owners who want the style and strength of leather without the guilt of hurting the planet around them.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
It’s been a long road to Oak & Berry, but we’ve learned a lot along the way. When I was only making dog leashes and collars out of leather, I’d have a lot of people come up to me and say “but is it water proof?” Or “my pup plays roughly, can the leather stand up to that?” People who lived a plant-based or vegan lifestyle would say, “oh I love they way leather feels, but the way it’s grown and made is just too destructive.” And, frankly, I agree with all of them. Oak & Berry aims to address those issues and many more. Piñatex is water resistant, scuff resistant, incredibly strong, sustainable, and biodegradable. When you hold a bag or dog leash made from Piñatex, it’s very soft and ages really well. When I first hand a Piñatex dog collar or leash to someone, one of the first things they say to me is, “oh is this leather? No, it can’t be. Is it?” The back and forth they go through is one of our little joys in the shop. Unfortunately, I believe one of our biggest hurdles at Oak & Berry is introducing Piñatex to people. It’s hard to see or feel how amazing this stuff is through a picture on the internet. But after we hand someone a leash to walk their dog on or they feel the softness of the padded design, they’re always hooked and love it.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
In the autumn, like it is now, the colors around here are amazing. Ithaca, NY, where Oak & Berry is based, is known for it’s fall colors, waterfalls, and gorges. Combine all of those and you have days worth of hiking to enjoy. I love finding spots that overlook the valleys, where you can see the far hillsides, and gazing at the mixture of orange leaves mixed with deep red and some still green. There’s a little known spot up on Mount Pleasant Road, just outside of Ithaca next to Cornell University’s Observatory, where you can park and look out over Ithaca and all the fall colors. If the weather’s right, when the sun goes down and Ithaca’s lights come on, you can’t tell where the lights end and the stars begin. Speaking of Cornell, the main campus is just up the hill from Ithaca and no visit would be complete without walking through Cornell’s historic campus. Old stone buildings with iron framed windows rub shoulders with modern architecture with glass floors and walls. Down in Ithaca, there’s an incredible collection of restaurants with a plethora of cuisines to choose from. I’d recommend stopping at the new vegan diner Angelheart’s, even if you aren’t vegan. The food is entirely made from scratch and mostly organic. It tastes amazing and is really imaginative. They have this home-smoked shaved coconut that is just incredible. I’ve tried to recreate it at home, but I don’t have their magic touch, or smoker. Another amazing place to eat is New Delhi Diamond’s cuisine where they serve Indian cuisine. I recommend aiming for the lunch buffet so you can eat as much as you want, and you’ll want a lot. If you like the water, Cayuga Lake reaches down to the edge of Ithaca and offers some fantastic sailing in the warm summer months. Off to one side is Taughannock Falls State Park. The park as a concert stage that faces out towards the lake, so, if you’re lucky and know someone with a boat, you join the flotilla of boats to watch a concert on the water as the sun goes down. An experience you won’t forget, believe me.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This business wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for my long time friend Pima Mbwana. I remember his first words to me after I told him my idea to make strong, sustainable dog supplies were “you’ve got something here!” And I remember my response, as any entrepreneur who daydreams can tell you, was an incredulous, “really?” Pima’s continued belief and encouragement has meant the difference between us forging ahead and Oak & Berry remaining as just an idea on a piece of paper. I’ve always said the best teacher of dog behavior is the dog itself. You can read books, you can go to talks, but nothing’s going to teach you like experience. So I have to show gratitude to my dogs through the years, mostly Siberian Huskies, who let me put all my new creations and designs on them to see how they’d fit and work, or not work. They patiently waited through tweak after adjustment. (Well, mostly patiently. Anyone with a Husky can tell you that bribes have to be involved.)
Photos and Logo by KNG Marketing Group, Tempe, Arizona