Spotlight on Ralph Saldi, Bark & Vine Owner

I had the joy of sitting down with Ralph to talk about what's happening at the store this spring, discuss the importance of AAPI month, and chat about exciting upcoming projects. Read on for all the juicy details!

Emily: I know you get this question often, but for those who don't know, how did Bark & Vine get its start?

Ralph: Bark & Vine was envisioned during the height of COVID in early 2020. I had just lost both my mom and my job weeks apart due to COVID and found myself in an unpredictable place in my life. Plants and gardening became my escape, and as my houseplant collection grew, so did the number of people interested in starting their own plant collection. I then started to research and develop an online business where I could ship plants to people. 

Bark & Vine was born in my dining room, and I launched the online business in August of 2020. A month later, we secured a storefront in downtown New Haven. I had a strong vision of what a storefront full of plants was going to offer to the community, as well as a passion to create a space that people would love to visit after being stuck at home for almost a year.

E: What started your love of plants?

R: I was given an Aloe Vera years ago and it sat on my dining room table for years with minimal care. I thought it wasn’t growing until I saw a picture of the same plant from when I first received it - it was a lot smaller in the picture. That sparked my interest, and I started researching other plants that would do well in my space. One plant led to another, and soon I found myself taking care of a jungle. Taking care of plants also helped me relax and wind down after working in a fast-paced retail job. Instead of rushing around, my morning ritual became watering, pruning, and fertilizing.

E: May is AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) month, and this year's theme is 'Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.' As a Filipino, what does it mean to you to celebrate AAPI month, and how are you creating opportunities for others through Bark & Vine?

R: Growing up I never saw people who looked like me in positions of influence and power. I never imagined myself as a small business owner. But now I get to foster a community of people like me; I can show others that it is possible, it is fun, and it is fulfilling. No, you don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer. My parents never forced me to pursue any particular job and I thank them so much for allowing me to explore life on my own terms.

There’s a sense of pride every time a fellow Filipino comes to the shop and they find out that it is owned by a Filipino. We celebrate each other’s achievements as if they were our own, and I am just blessed to be in a position where people feel free to celebrate that. It makes my heart full. What’s even more exciting is that there are two other Filipino owned businesses just blocks away from the shop- there’s a Filipino restaurant I love, Zul Cafe, and a new Pilates studio opening this summer, Club Pilates New Haven.

(Bark & Vine is partnering with Club Pilates New Haven to host an introductory Pilates and Houseplant class on May 27th. Get your tickets here.)

E: Are there any business leaders or role models from the AAPI/APIDA (Asian Pacific Islander Desi American) community that you admire?

R: Liah Yoo is a Korean American business owner in the beauty and skincare industry. She founded Krave Beauty, a brand I absolutely admire. Krave Beauty is transparent in their sustainability practice and educational in their research, and Liah’s leadership and work ethic are qualities I try to emulate. Locally and nationally, I am inspired by the many Asian restaurants, businesses, and markets that are run by families. It is so touching to see families come together to build a business that sustains their lives, all done with equal parts heart and hard work. I am a new uncle and it is amazing to imagine that maybe my niece could help me run the Bark & Vine “empire” in the future!

E: What are some of the things you love most about being an entrepreneur in this community?

R: We have created a place where people feel welcome. We have new plant parents coming to us for advice on their mature pothos or an heirloom plant they inherited. We love hearing stories of how they have made a jungle in their homes, and I take it as a personal challenge to build confidence in people who think they can never take care of a plant. There’s a plant for everyone! 

E: You know, you might be an admired leader to budding entrepreneurs in our area! What advice or encouragement do you have for an aspiring business owner?

R: There’s a direct correlation between the amount of effort you put into something and the success you are able to achieve. When you put in 100%, expect the possibility of 100% success or 100% failure. When you put in 10%, then only expect 10% possibility of success and 10% possibility of failure. The risk of failing may be lower, but so is the reward. Be realistic with your expectations.

Entrepreneurship is often a very scary thing to do, but as long as you surround yourself with people who share the same goals or support your vision, anything is possible. Whether it's your partner, your friend, your parents, or siblings… I did not do this by myself. I had a lot of people who helped me. 

E: Speaking of, the store just celebrated two years of business this past February. Congratulations!

R: Thank you! I can’t believe it’s been two years. It feels like we just opened yesterday, but it also feels like we’ve been doing this for 10 years. 

E: The first two years of Bark & Vine have been highly successful. How are you taking advantage of that momentum in year three?

R: Year three is about building. I need to sustain the business, but I also need to keep learning, have the guts to continue to take chances, and not be afraid of failure. I have a lot more at stake now - a storefront, great staff, and professional relationships to maintain, but I still need to be able to take risks. As my friend said, “Success and growth does not mean a constant incline of progress.” The bigger picture is an incline but the day to day may look like dips and valleys. One thing is for sure - we’re going to keep having fun. The team and I are highly focused on creating an avenue for biophilic design, facilitating plant installations in commercial and residential buildings, and holding more classes and events in the shop to ensure that the community aspect of the business is always at the forefront. 

E: Last year, you held a rare plant day to celebrate the store’s first anniversary. It was a great event that brought together other small businesses and showed collectors and new plant owners alike what an amazing variety of plants exist. Do you have anything similar planned for this year?

R: Last year's event was amazing. So many people came out to our block party and it was such a momentous day not just for the shop, but for me as an individual. Building B&V was a personal project that challenged everything I knew about who I am and what I was capable of. It was so validating that people received the shop so well. I was not a business owner before this. I didn't know the reach of my own creativity so it was very emotional for me to celebrate a full year of this baby of mine.

This year, we’re throwing another block party to celebrate two years of business. We should have more details soon. 

E: What’s your favorite part of being in the store?

R: I enjoy being able to work in a space that is a fully realized concept developed entirely by me. Bark & Vine is an amalgamation of everything I love and it has allowed me to marry my love of photography, plants, and merchandising without sacrificing anything. Outside of that, the shop has allowed me to meet so many cool people who come through the store. Customers have become friends all because of our shared interest in gardening.

E: Do you have any exciting new initiatives that you can share details with us?

R: Our main initiative for the rest of the year is to continue to expand the plant selection at Bark & Vine. We would love to offer more varieties of plants to sustain the demand and increase of plant parents throughout New Haven and beyond. We are also excited to develop a more comprehensive business model for plant installations as we grow our partnership with local businesses, residences, and offices throughout Connecticut. 

We were asked to be part of the revival of the Brutalist building in New Haven, now called Hotel Marcel, and it was such an honor for us. We now have plants inside the hotel and get to take care of them regularly. This is one of the corporate installations that jump started our work with professional and residential installations for our community.

E: With that, where do you see the business in the next 2 years? 5 years?

R: I would love to bring a touch of our jungle into people’s homes and workplaces. Customers always compliment the look of our shop and how much they want to move into a space that looks like Bark & Vine. The team and I are hard at work to develop a service that will do exactly that. If you have a new office, apartment, or business and need help finding the right plants for your space, we would love to help you!

E: Lastly, you've brought so much beauty to New Haven and shared that with customers from all over the state, and even across the country. I imagine that must be one of the great things about running a shop like B&V.

R: It definitely is! I love seeing how a plant has matured under the care of someone who never thought in a million years they could keep a plant alive, let alone have it thrive and grow. We also have people who are plant collectors and I get joy in being able to offer plants that are on their wish list at an affordable price. B&V has become a New Haven destination and I am so appreciative of people travelling from near and far to come see our shop!