How Blue Delta Jeans made manufacturing work for themselves, their employees, and the community.
Words by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Photos by James Acomb
The COVID-19 pandemic has put the American economy on its knees, forcing businesses of all sizes and across industries to adapt more quickly than for any other event in recent history. Right now, innovation equals survival, as business owners and CEOs everywhere search for a way to save their companies and take care of their employees. Some are doing this and going a step farther—pivoting not to just stay in business, but also to become a part of the coronavirus solution. Mississippi’s Blue Delta Jeans is one. Good Grit talked to the Oxford-based company’s co-founders, CEO Josh West and COO Nick Weaver, about their decision to slow the production of their coveted custom jeans and start making protective masks.
GG: What prompted Blue Delta Jeans to use your jeans factory to make masks?
Josh: Two main reasons. 1) We saw a huge need for additional masks. We heard from a partner who has a family member in the medical field that there was a shortage. We thought, with our skill set, we could tackle this problem. 2) We wanted to keep our people sewing and working during this economic downturn.
GG: What was the transition process like?
Josh: There was a lot to do. We knew we could make the product; that’s not the hard part. Our artisans make jeans, and that is can be pretty complicated—a small mask isn’t. But getting our equipment positioned to make a new product was hard, as was re-positioning our business. We first had to find the material for the masks, and we were able to source a local material. We took it to a lab at Mississippi State University and had it tested for safety. It passed. Then, we had to do the physical move and changing of equipment at our manufacturing facility, put up additional walls for safe working, and implement policies on gloves, masks, and strict temperature protocols. That was a lot of work.
Nick: And we did this in just a few days. To give you an idea of how fast this happened, on March 17, both of us were out of state. The world was normal. We were making jeans. By March 22, we had new the processes in place and machines ready to roll. By March 29, we shipped our first batch of masks.
GG: How many masks are you making now?
Nick: On the first day of production, we did around 400. We’re now making around 25,000 masks a day. We started with a small piece of our team devoted to this, but we then saw that the need was even bigger than we originally thought, so we moved more staff to masks.
Josh: We have around 30 employees, and right now, 75 percent of them are focused on mask production. We keep waiting on the demand to slow, but that has not happened yet.
GG: How and where are the masks you are making being distributed?
Josh: That’s one cool thing: Most of our masks are staying in Southeast. The largest portion of them goes to the Mississippi Emergency Management agency. Twice a week, they send the National Guard to pick them up at our factory, and they get them out to folks who need them most. The cities of Oxford and Memphis are mask customers too, and we are shipping those orders to them.
GG: What has the response been from your customers and others when they heard you were slowing down on jeans production for a bit?
Josh: We do have 25 percent of our staff still making jeans, but we’ve had great response from our customers. There are people who already had jeans in the pipeline when this hit, and I have not gotten one call saying, “My jeans are late!” or “Where are my jeans?”
I have had folks call saying, “I heard what you are doing, and I want to buy some jeans.” We tell them we don’t know when we can get them to you, and they say, “We don’t care. We want to support you.”
Nick: Our gift card sales are way up, which is kinda unbelievable right now, but it’s great. That supports us and helps us make more masks.
GG: What do you see in the immediate future?
Nick: I think for some companies, masks might be a part of the new normal, at least for a while. We’ve had a few big companies and organizations asking about us making them a washable mask with their logo on it. I’m glad to see them looking ahead to keeping their workers safe.
And that’s been our goal too—to protect our employees. Our jeans sales are down, but our employees’ paychecks have not dropped at all; some are making a bit more.
GG: What would you most like people to know about your efforts to help with the COVID-19 response?
Josh: We want to show that we are a brand that is going to be around. We’re proving that we are small and flexible enough to pivot and do what it takes to keep our people employed. I also want people to know that we are ready to start selling jeans again.
Nick: The manufacturing is not my department, but what we’ve been able to do with this shows how talented and dedicated our team is. They are working long hours, six days a week, to make masks. We even have one guy coming in to run machines all night. I’ve never felt more American than I do now, doing this. I’m just happy we can help fill a need.