Last year was a good one for lovers of animal-free apparel. Prenzlauer Berg witnessed the opening of avesu. The store, whose name is short for “a vegan shoe”, is situated right next to the all-vegan supermarket veganz. Here, avesu offers stylish and leather-free footwear from high-heels to sneakers. I sat down with Thomas Reichel (left side on the picture), one of the owners, to talk about two of my favorite topics: nutrition and entrepreneurism.
How long have you been an entrepreneur?
I have pursued entrepreneurial activities since 1999. Back then I started out with a market stall for vegan and vegetarian fare, so veganism was part of it from the start. You have to imagine it as a refrigerated counter selling vegetarian and vegan meatballs, schnitzel and “lunch meat” by the gram or kilo.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I actually more or less became an entrepreneur by necessity to fund my studies at the university.
What other businesses were you involved with before avesu?
First there was that market stall “IVS”, which stood for “International Vegetarian Specialties”. Pretty high aspirations as you can hear. After that I started a restaurant for organic vegan and vegetarian fast food called Yellow Sunshine, together with my business partner from IVS and a woman from the animal rights movement. Then came a time in which I wasn’t self-employed but working for someone else. Among others, I was employed at Topas who also make Wheaty (products from wheat gluten).
How did you come up with the idea for avesu?
The idea came about through some market research. We probed around a little and found a niche since there wasn’t anyone who provided nice vegan shoes on a wide scale. That was the initial idea for and online shoe business that later branched out into the store.
What do you think is the biggest advantage of being an entrepreneur?
That you have the power to decide your own fate and make your own luck. Especially, being able to turn your ideas into reality fast. You are not dependent on anyone, except maybe your business partner. The ideas rise or fall according to the energy you invest in them. I find that very appealing.
And on the other hand, what is the biggest disadvantage?
The biggest challenge is to build something up to the point that you can live off of it. As soon as your business can carry you, things get a lot easier. Everyone has to find out for themselves how much time they want to invest into this. That’s another big challenge: there’s always the danger to get to the point where you only work for the company and you have to put a time limit on it yourself.
What would you say is the most important skill or character trait an entrepreneur should possess?
Some kind of mix between bravado and perseverance. If you don’t tackle things, nothing will happen. I was met with doubt frequently and a lot of people tried to dissuade me. Often I first in the area I ventured in. If you keep at it, it will work out. You can succeed in most things if you have an idea that you believe in. And you mustn’t be turned off by other people’s opinions. You have to see for yourself what can I do, how much can I put in, and then you have to stick to it and see it through.
How long have you been a vegan? What was your main reason to become one?
I’ve been a vegan since about the mid-nineties. Before that, I had been a vegetarian for a couple of years but then decided that it was too inconsequential and adopted veganism. Dairy products and eggs are also part of the animal-exploitation machinery. I also just realized that it is possible to live this way without any deficiencies. It’s hard to imagine until you have experienced it for yourself.
What do you think is changing currently about the way people think about food and nutrition?
I can see it in our own shop and over at our neighbor’s that there is a growing demand for vegan products. I myself had a hard time finding things to eat in the beginning, because the market did not provide for this, at least not in Germany. That has changed a lot by now, today you can get vegan fare everywhere. Just last week I bought burgers at Aldi Süd (a German supermarket chain) and they even tasted good. It’s becoming easier and easier to live this way. I’m very confident that people are becoming more conscious about the way they eat and that new values are growing in importance.
How do you see the development of veganism and vegetarianism?
Consumers, especially young people, are becoming less tolerant. They inform themselves, they stand up for what they believe, really immerse themselves in the topic and often conclude that some things are an absolute no-go for them. And that’s great to see.
Tell me more about avesu.
What we wanted to do with avesu was to offer stylish vegan shoes and I hope we have succeeded in staying true to this idea. We wanted to provide a wide spectrum. Vegan shoes were sort of a fringe topic of veganism and had more of a granola image. A lot of shoes were clunky and not nice to look at. Today we have more than twelve manufacturers and can’t even sell everything the market has to offer. Especially the market pioneers by now have such a wide range of models that it’s sometimes hard to chose from. We once thought we would have empty shelves in the shop but now you could build a maze here from shoe boxes.
What are you shoes made of?
We have a lot of different materials: synthetic or natural such as hemp, canvas, rubber and cork. We look for shoes to fulfill different criteria. First they should be vegan of course. But we find it equally important that they have been manufactured in socially acceptable ways. If no animal has to die for the shoe but it is then produced by child labor – that really doesn’t help anyone. A third aspect is their sustainability. Most of our manufactures try to implement this concept, for instance by using recycled materials. One company is making shoes out of old rugs, another one uses bark for their upper materials.
What kind of people are your customers?
On average more young people frequent us and the major part are women. Shoes are still more of a female topic. Apart from that, people of all ages who realized they want to change something in their life come here, including people from my parents’ generation. I’m really happy about that and I enjoy supporting their decision and helping them. I guess the major part really are vegans but also people who are merely curious about the idea of vegan shoes and who are convinced easily. Many are surprised about the materials and that their leather-like feel and properties such as being breathable.
What are your plans for the future?
We would really like to establish avesu as a shoe brand and open stores in different major cities. That’s my vision. In the very near future we will move to a bigger place next door, since we underestimated the number of shoes and now need some more space. However, we would like to branch out to other big cities, maybe Frankfurt is going to be next.
Thanks for the interview.