The moment you enter the United by Blue (UBB) on Penn’s campus, you find yourself at ease. Whether you're camping out at a table to write a paper with a mug full of foamy latte by your side, or trekking to your dorm with a refreshing iced coffee, UBB's coffee is iconic in any form.
Though its drinks, pastries, and sandwiches are delicious, UBB is more than just a coffee shop. Not only does the company sell clothing and other merchandise, but it also does so with an important mission: For every product purchased, UBB removes one pound of trash from oceans and waterways.
Co–founders Mike Cangi and Brian Linton started the business in 2010 with the goal of making a tangible impact on the environment, and more specifically on the oceans. “We started with just four T–shirts that we sold to a couple dozen stores back in 2010, with the mission of removing one pound of trash for every product that we sold. We started our first waterway cleanups the same month that we sold our first T–shirts, and the brand has evolved based on that same principle ever since,” Cangi says.
United by Blue now has a full line of men’s and women’s apparel, bags, and accessories at two storefronts—UBB’s flagship store is located in Old City, and its second location is on Walnut Street on Penn’s campus. UBB products can also be found on the company's website and through other retailers at about 1,200 stores nationwide, including REI, Whole Foods Market, and Macy's.
Every sale that UBB makes directly funds beach cleanups, which it organizes and hosts itself. “We don’t donate to a nonprofit or pay somebody else to do the work on our behalf—we actually have a team in house. That, in a lot of ways, makes United by Blue equal parts an environmental organization and a business," Cangi says. UBB has hosted over 300 cleanups in the past ten years in 48 states, and it's worked with over 13,000 volunteers to remove nearly 3.6 million pounds of trash from waterways in the United States and abroad.
Though UBB started as a clothing brand, the co–owners decided in 2013 that they wanted to try their hand at a physical retail store. They didn’t believe that many Philadelphians knew of the brand, which prompted them to open their first location in Old City.
Cangi explains that they didn’t want to open UBB as a traditional store: “We wanted to have something that was more community–driven and experiential. We felt the best way to build community was through having coffee and giving people a spot to sit down, meet people, and to feel like they’re part of the brand without having to buy a new backpack or T–shirt. We wanted people to be able to just buy a cup of coffee and feel at home, like they belong."
At first, UBB just served coffee at its original location. The shop then began selling pastries and snacks. The following year, it opened its location on Penn’s campus and expanded the menu to serve breakfast sandwiches and a few other items. Eventually, it equipped the store in Old City with a full kitchen that serves breakfast, lunch, and brunch. Several items from the flagship store menu are served at the Penn location as well.
Cangi and Linton founded UBB with limited knowledge of the food industry, which Cangi believes contributed to their slow start. Talented team members, managers, and chefs have helped them to reach the place that they're at today. Partners such as ReAnimator coffee, which roasts coffee specifically for UBB in Philadelphia and trains all of the shop's baristas, have bolstered their success.
“I think that’s what has helped us stand out on a block that has a lot of food and coffee. On Walnut Street, we’re sandwiched between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Starbucks, but when we opened up, we were the only ones to offer an organic option, something that’s more fresh and local," Cangi says. "Fortunately, students and the rest of our customers resonated with that. It’s been a fantastic location for us, despite the challenges of the pandemic, and it’s a space that we love and believe in the future of."
United by Blue’s Old City location was closed for a little over a month at the start of the pandemic before reopening. But the location on Penn’s campus just reopened on Feb. 1 for takeout service and Feb. 15 for indoor seating for the first time during the pandemic.
If not for the help of the University, UBB's Penn location might have never been able to reopen. “The University owns the real estate on Walnut Street. They’re our landlord. They’ve been integral in making sure that we can remain on campus and succeed long-term," says Cangi. "Some of the other businesses around the city that we’ve unfortunately seen close didn’t have landlords who were truly invested in the neighborhood and community, whereas I think the University of Pennsylvania has done a great job remaining accommodating and lenient with us."
But according to Cangi, when UBB's Penn location first reopened, business wasn’t even at 10% of what it usually was at that time of year. Though sales remain lower than normal, Cangi says that UBB is heading in the right direction. He's thankful for the students and customers who know and love UBB—the people who have come back for food and community, even during the pandemic.
Despite the circumstances, United by Blue has achieved its goal of becoming an integral part of the Penn community, and the UBB family is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“We want to be an extension of campus in a lot of ways, a spot for people to work independently or meet with peers and professors," Cangi says. "That’s what is special about UBB. It’s an independent shop, not a chain or a franchise—which, at a location like Walnut Street on Penn’s campus, allows us to be part of the community and build deeper relationships.”