Pilates, CrossFit, and SoulCycle, to name a few, have successfully etched their own lanes in an ever crowded market by building a lifestyle around their brands.
Now Grit Bxng is looking to do the same—with bitcoin and booze to lure you in.
On the fitness side, Grit cycles members through an instructor-led circuit of boxing, cardio, and strength training—with a $1 million lighting and sound system creating an almost club-like ambiance. Grit is also cashing in on the bitcoin craze, being the first gym to accept the currency. On the employee side, the company is offering its trainers up to $1,000 per hour. But one of the main selling points founder Bill Zanker is touting is the sense of community he’s trying to build, namely with a full liquor bar in the studio.
“SoulCycle, it’s kind of hard to meet someone on the bike because you’re pedaling. Then, even if you’re in the men’s room, it’s kind of weird—you have a towel around you. There’s no real place after you had the joint experience to hang,” says Zanker, who’s also the founder of adult education company The Learning Annex. “That’s what we wanted to to do is build a community. Right after class, you can hang out, meet somebody, talk to somebody, have a drink with them, and just hang.”
Boutique studios are seeing a boom within the larger momentum of the fitness industry. According to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, the health club market is worth $87.2 billion globally and has grown every year since 2008. Within the universe of big-box gyms, boutique studios account for 42% of the U.S. club market, and IHRSA data indicates that boutique memberships expanded 74% between 2012 and 2015. However, 81% of studios close or fail in the first year, so the road to fitness stardom is far from direct.
Grit is coming to the ring with headline-grabbing sound bites, but will it be enough to make any real noise?
A gritty idea
The idea for Grit came about when Zanker’s daughter, Ediva Zanker, was telling him how hard it was to meet people in the boxing studio she was attending. Zanker’s son, Dylan, chimed in with the notion that the workouts had to be fun, like a club, including an adequate sound and light system, as well as a bar. And so, in a rather unlikely trio, Zanker teamed up with motivational speaker Tony Robbins and rapper Pitbull as investing and creative partners to launch Grit in August, with Ediva and Dylan serving as cofounders.
“The boutique space is becoming crowded,” says fitness industry expert Bryan K. O’Rourke. “I think differentiation is critical for concepts today and combining experiences [like a bar with studio] is a way to achieve this. If the offering if orchestrated in a great way, it could be a big differentiator.
Emphasis on “if orchestrated in a great way.”
Where’s the bar?
I attended Grit’s opening day at their flagship location in Union Square in New York. After punching and pumping my way through the 50-minute workout, I tried to hit the bar—but there was barely a bar to hit. Between the door and the front desk of an already snug lobby are rows of Grit-branded merchandise and workout clothes. To the far left, cramped into a corner, is the bar. Sitting at the bar is tad tricky given the lack of space. There’s a small row of stadium seating next to the bar that would be ideal for spillover. But that area also doubles as a waiting room for the next workout group, so space is constantly at a premium.
Granted, Grit will have high and low traffic periods like any gym or studio. And the opening day for anything is bound to be chaotic. Other locations may have more room to play with, but at the Union Square location, that lounging chill vibe I thought I was going to get was more like sweaty and claustrophobic screaming match.
In many regards, the Grit experience really did feel like a club.
I did manage to talk to my workout session trainer Max Karp at the bar. Standing and dodging trays of complimentary cold brew that whizzed between and around us, Karp did seem genuinely appreciative of a studio like Grit.
“It’s so supportive. And once you break away from that, the experience itself is unlike anything I’ve [seen],” Karp says. “Between the crazy lights and sounds in that room, the technology that goes on—and even more importantly, the bar. I’m a really big fan of having that third space that really fosters community.”
Karp was a trainer for Barry’s Bootcamp for two years before joining Grit. More than 300 trainers auditioned to fill the nine slots for Grit’s Union Square location. “It was cutthroat for sure,” Karp says.
Zanker says he was looking for “rock stars” in the fitness community, people who could be charismatic and motivational in equal measure. During the audition process, trainers had to work out and hop on a mic to give a sense of their training style.
Zanker put a particular emphasis on selecting who he believes are the top trainers in the space—and he also knew that would come at a cost. “In the fitness space, nobody’s really getting the best of the best. The only way you can get the best of the best is [if] you pay—and you pay a lot,” Zanker says. “I could build the greatest sound system, the greatest light system. I could have the greatest workout on earth, but no matter what, if you don’t have the greatest instructor in front of the room to motivate you, then it doesn’t do anything. These guys are rock stars, and rock stars get paid.”
The personal training space is something of a feast or famine situation, in that there doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground between household name trainers like Jillian Michaels and Gunnar Peterson and your instructor at your local gym. The median pay for fitness trainers and instructors is currently $39,820 per year ($19.15 per hour), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Grit offers up to $1,000 per session.
“Pay for quality trainers is a challenge for competitors and an opportunity for those who can attract great professionals,” O’Rourke says.
For Karp, he says he’s making enough for Grit to be his full-time job. “I look and hope to teach here as much as I possibly can.”
Some people may wait and see if an idea like Grit would catch fire in one market, but Zanker is wasting no time: He’s already signed a lease for a second location in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. To help subsidize the cost, Grit recently announced a private placement offering for qualified investors to back the company. As a potential additional revenue stream, Zanker says each Grit location will also double as a venue to watch sporting matches or host seminars and lectures.
Zanker clearly wants Grit to be a social space that extends beyond a gym. But it could fall prey to a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none scenario: Can the workout experience match the level of the bar and community experience? From my time at Grit, the answer is no. In cities like New York and San Francisco, there’s absolutely no shortage of bars around the corner from any gym where you can socialize more comfortably, with a far wider selection of drinks. Not to mention, in most gyms there’s already some kind of seating area that would suffice just fine if you were indeed dying to gab with the your new gym BFF. Personally, I don’t need my gym to have a bar, but if it did, I’d expect the full bar experience.
If Grit plans on making any dent in the boutique space, it’d do well to put just as much thought into designing a space where people want—and are able to—socialize as it’s done in building a thorough workout routine.