Outside Business Journal

Coping with COVID: United By Blue Pivots to Grocery Sales

By staying true to its community-driven values, the Philadelphia-born brand transformed its flagship retail store into a mini market for fresh foods, household goods, and takeout meals. An insurance provider took notice.

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United By Blue co-founder Mike Cangi never thought he’d be stocking the shelves of his outdoor apparel stores with toilet paper. But it was what his community needed at the start of the pandemic and the Philadelphia-based brand has always been driven by its community’s needs.

United By Blue's flagship store in Philadelphia was transformed into a neighborhood mini market, selling the deconstructed ingredients the brand used…
United By Blue’s flagship store in Philadelphia was transformed into a neighborhood mini market, selling the deconstructed ingredients the brand used to make meals in its café. (Photo: Courtesy)

Almost overnight in March, United By Blue lost virtually its entire base of 1,200 wholesale accounts, says Cangi, noting that at the time wholesale was its primary sales channel. Not knowing that those accounts would eventually come back, Cangi and his team had to reinvent themselves in order to survive. Because the brand’s two stores had cafés with breakfast, lunch, and brunch menus, it used its connections to independent farms, cooperatives, and restaurant suppliers to transform the flagship store into a neighborhood mini market and takeout service. “[Our suppliers] had no customers all of a sudden because they were only selling to restaurants and a lot of the restaurants were closed,” Cangi said. “They were overstocked with food and supplies in the same way we were overstocked with apparel.”

Through the market concept, United By Blue customers could still order coffee and a breakfast sandwich to go and for delivery. Or they could shop the store for the deconstructed ingredients, such as eggs, bread, cheese, and other fresh, local, and organic foods. United By Blue also started selling recycled paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, and other supplies it could access through their network, even as traditional grocery stores experienced shortages.

"White cartons with label that says Grade AA Extra Large eggs inside a green crate"
United By Blue deconstructed its menu items and began selling the fresh, local, and sometimes organic ingredients—such as eggs, fruits, vegetables, cheese, and bread—to people in the neighborhood. Their flagship store in Philadelphia was transformed into a mini market. (Photo: Courtesy)

One of its regular customers, an employee of Independence Blue Shield, the area’s Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance affiliate, took notice. She proposed partnering with United By Blue to create a grocery program so those same bags of fresh foods could reach seniors in the area who were in need. “People were saying how beautiful the groceries were,” Cangi said. “That’s just a testament to the lack of access to fresh food.”

What started as a four-week program grew to a six-week program. Then it grew again. United By Blue is now in its third round of programming and has made close to 15,000 deliveries of bags filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, and other ingredients. Cangi says at first, this new path for his business didn’t make much sense. But it allowed them to keep employees and almost replace the lost revenue from wholesale accounts, while also discovering a new way to enhance their core community-centric mission.

The unexpected partnership and opportunity, Cangi says, will be part of United By Blue’s business model in the future. In fact, he’s in conversation now with other insurance providers. “Being a sustainable living brand has always been at our core,” Cangi said, “and in order to live a sustainable lifestyle, food is a key part of that equation.”