Cecilia Masiello woke up at her parents’ home nine years ago, craving Belgian waffles—the kind she had often enjoyed before hitting the slopes at New England ski resorts. Being that this was her winter break from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, she set her mind to making them and began gathering the ingredients.
The problem? The recipe called for pearl sugar (sugar compressed into grains), a specialty item popular in Europe but hard to find in her home state of Rhode Island. After a time-consuming search at nearby grocery stores, she finally found the product at a boutique shop in Providence. That hunt sparked a business idea that Masiello would carry around—and refine in her mind—for close to a decade before she made it happen.
After graduating from college in 2018 with a degree in media studies, Masiello landed jobs at startup companies across the country from New York to Hawaii, all the while thinking back to the pearl sugar incident. “I had often found myself needing an item and wondering if the stores near me carried it. There had to be a way to harness local business’ inventory to make it easy for shoppers to browse and buy products.”
Last fall, her idea finally crystallized when she launched an app called Shop the Blok to help consumers connect with local retailers. It all came together when she met Jens Soegaard, a software engineer based in Kingston. Soegaard had previously helped develop innovative products for startups and large corporations such as Eli Lilly and Microsoft. Upon hiring him in January 2022 as her chief technology officer, Masiello began visiting local stores to introduce the Shop the Blok concept and learned that 90 percent of them track their inventory. It took Soegaard 10 months to build the app, which went live last October.
Currently, the app features nine stores in Kingston, lists their merchandise, and makes it simple for shoppers to browse and purchase items through the app. When the product is ready for in-store pickup, the customer is notified. Aside from the ease of the shopping experience, customers interact personally with the shop owners, creating a synergistic experience for everyone.
“The app helps you find and buy what you need locally,” says the 26-year-old Masiello, founder and CEO, who runs her home-based business partially in Stone Ridge. “The other piece is that we have all the shops listed and all their products. The inventory is available through the app. The products are being curated by a local shopkeeper, so it’s super important to remember that every product is hand-selected by someone who is an expert in that field and can answer all your questions. That human piece of this is so important because you have somebody who stands behind the product.”
Masiello picked Kingston as a pilot location because of its vibrant shopping districts made up of independent stores that carry everything from tea kettles to mountain boots. At press time, Shop the Blok businesses include Rough Draft Bar & Books, Revolution Bicycles, Exit Nineteen, Clove & Creek, Salamone’s Italian Foods, Westerlind, Spruce Design and Decor, Hamilton & Adams, and Bluecashew Kitchen Homestead. Each store has a page on the app spotlighting the story behind the business and its merchandise. In all, more than 12,000 products are listed on Shop the Blok. Masiello expects to include more stores in the coming months and hopes to expand it regionally and even nationally.
So far, more than 1,000 people have downloaded Shop the Blok (it’s free for now), and have searched for thousands of products, according to Masiello. “The business owners have been extremely supportive and have told us that joining the app is a no-brainer,” she says. “Amazon is not as cool as it once was. People don’t know who they’re buying from and what the product will be like when they get it. More people want to support their community and meet people and learn the stories behind their favorite stores. With Shop the Blok, we’re bringing shopping back to the neighborhood. It’s the new way to shop the old way.”
To download the app, go to shoptheblok.com.