The Business of Food
Owners of clubs and studios across the United States explain the appeal of adding diet coaching, cooking classes and other nutrition programs to their physical activity regimens.
From small studios to nationwide club chains, fitness companies are finding ways to help clients get better at navigating their nutritional challenges. They’re doing things like
- building smoothie bars,
- convening healthy supper clubs with candlelight dinners,
- bringing in chefs to provide cooking demonstrations, and
- offering seminars with registered dietitians.
And that’s just the start. We talked to fitness pros around the country to find out what kinds of nutrition services they are offering clients and why they’re doing it. Read on for a roundup of their advice.
Make It a Challenge
Fitness alone will not get most clients the results they want, says Sue Davis, director of nutrition and a fitness coach for Method3 Fitness, a 3,750-square-foot club with 400 active members in San Jose, California. That’s why her club introduced its “Thrive in 35” nutritional support program 7 years ago and has developed a comprehensive nutrition program in the past 3 years.
Staged three times a year, Thrive in 35 enters 75-plus clients in a friendly 35-day competition to see who can lose the highest percentage of their starting weight. “During weekly accountability check-ins with a nutrition coach, challengers receive both nutrition and mindset support. [That’s in addition to] participating in activities and seminars specific to the group,” Davis says. They’re weighed and measured before starting, then given a suggested eating plan that focuses on “a balance of macronutrients, portion control, meal timing, preparing and eating as much real food as appropriate, and minimizing processed foods.”
To make it easier for people to succeed, Method3 provides meal suggestions and 17 recipes per week. The weekly mindset motivators include goal setting, visualizations, meditation and affirmations. Competitors also keep a daily journal of food intake, water intake, exercise, sleep times and gratitude reflections. Participants are required to bring their completed journals to a weekly weigh-in to receive the next week’s recipe packet.
Nutrition coaches troubleshoot with suggestions and support, which includes a dedicated Facebook group with Facebook Live “office hours.” Thrive in 35 is offered not only to members but also to club visitors, which helps to drive new full-club sign-ups.
While Thrive in 35 is a fee-based challenge, Davis attributes part of Method3 Fitness’s $55,000 in revenue growth over the past 3 years to the standard inclusion of four complimentary 30-minute nutrition sessions that club members get in their first 60 days.
Keep It Simple and Local
At Avenu Fitness & Lifestyle in Houston, it’s all about simplicity and community. Owner Brent Gallagher says, “Our clients are more successful when they have a system that can be taken anywhere and used in any situation.”
To bring the point home, he built a teaching kitchen in his club to provide 30-minute cooking classes. Gallagher wants to “take nutrition out of the refrigerator and into the full kitchen by empowering clients with simple recipes and cooking skills. We bring in chefs, dietitians and local farmers to educate and build relationships with our community.”
“We then team up with these local farmers and host farm-to-table dinners on our training floor right next to our equipment.” Avenu is also a drop site for programs offering community-supported agriculture and locally raised meat.
Adding community dinners to his food program has proved financially rewarding. “The food events we host are the best lead-generation programs,” Gallagher says. “When you connect around food, you build relationships.”
To help clients develop a foundation for understanding food choices, Gallagher recommends starting with a basic question: “What is a better choice?” Next, he offers tips to help clients achieve “small wins.” The tips range from moving junk food to a bottom shelf to understanding the link between adequate sleep and diminished food cravings.Becoming Their Single Source
Simplifying your clients’ lives includes becoming their sole source for wellness information, including nutrition, advises Rachel Cosgrove, CSCS, owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, California, and author of The Female Body Breakthrough (Rodale 2009) and Drop Two Sizes (Rodale 2013). “This keeps them from seeking out a nutrition protocol that might be dangerous or ineffective.” You also want to make sure your dietary suggestions complement your training advice.
“We keep it simple by focusing on changing one habit at a time,” says Cosgrove, the 2012 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. “We give clients a journal and grocery list, then each week we ask what one change will have the biggest impact on their results. They commit to making that change.”
To improve employee health and rein in healthcare costs, many large companies partner with wellness companies that provide on-site dietitians. One of those wellness providers is Optum, which stations 35 dietitians at 26 client sites. Based in Boston, Valerie Machinist, MS, RDN, LDN, directs Optum’s on-site registered dietitian nutritionist services, which include individual nutrition counseling, group-based weight management programs, heart-health, and diabetes management programs, seminars, workshops, and cooking demos. Optum also collaborates with client companies’ on-site café vendors to improve their offerings.
Optum has been offering on-site RDN services for over 10 years. “It’s a win–win for everyone,” Machinist says. “Employees get easy and affordable access to an RDN, and employers get healthier employees. Across the board, it works best having our RDNs be an integrated part of the on-site team.”
Workers visit Optum’s RDNs for advice on weight management, CVD, diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders. Most of the company’s RDNs are working at almost full capacity, illustrating the need for comprehensive programs that bring fitness and nutrition professionals into the workplace.
It would be easy for Marci Thear, owner of Dig In Fitness in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, to focus on exercise and ignore nutrition. After all, her club has just 100 members. Nevertheless, she offers an 8-week program called “Healthy 56,” based on whole foods and education.
“The program consists of daily emails, weekly meetings, weekly menus and recipes, food-log monitoring, a closed Facebook group, and before-and-after weight measurements,” says Thear, who started her program almost 2 years ago. “My clients would complain about their eating habits and the way they felt from the foods they ate, so I decided to educate them on how to fuel their bodies. I focus on education, accountability and support.” The program’s 83% success rate with weight loss makes Thear an enthusiastic advocate of adding a nutrition component to a studio’s offerings.
It’s in the Mind
In Renton, Washington, Luka Hocevar owns Vigor Ground Fitness and Performance, a 4,600-square-foot facility that includes a fitness bar offering smoothies, coffee, acai bowls, cold-pressed juice, kombucha on tap, supplements and healthy snacks. He also partners with a meal delivery service. All Vigor team members hold a Precision Nutrition certification.
Hocevar looks at nutrition coaching from a holistic perspective. “Nutrition coaching is about interpersonal skills and psychology. When we understand nutrition plus change psychology plus communication, that’s when we can really help people change.”
His club offers nutrition seminars that emphasize clients doing “detective work” on the nutrition and lifestyle changes they must make to achieve their goals. “For over 9 years, we’ve offered nutrition coaching,” Hocevar says, “[because] I feel an ethical obligation to help clients achieve results.” Hocevar says the nutrition aspect of his business is part of the reason he’s gone from a 1,000-square-foot facility to where he is now.
Jim White got into the industry 12 years ago with the express purpose of offering both nutrition and fitness services. “I never considered anything else,” says the founder and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “Clients love how we have combined both services, and they mention that it’s the reason they seek us out. Our average client stays 8 months, beating the 3-month industry standard.”
White, a registered dietitian and an ACSM health fitness specialist, uses science and research to advocate a three-step approach to diet: Jump-start weight loss, bust past plateaus and maintain. He follows 10 principles that “stop the mayhem and get back to basics”:
- Eat often.
- Eat 3+ veggies a day.
- Eat 2+ fruits a day.
- Plan meals ahead.
- Eat a protein at every meal.
- Make half your plate grains.
- Have 3 servings of dairy daily.
- Make fats essential.
- Follow the 90/10 rule (eat healthfully 90% of the time).
- Stay hydrated.
White has three facilities, each about 3,000 square feet. The RDs he hires offer an array of services:
- one-on-one nutritional counseling
- group consulting
- nutrition boot camps
- private chef service/meal prep
- grocery store tours
- home cupboard cleanouts
- nutrition health fairs
White also accepts insurance claims. In 2014, he opened three medical nutrition therapy offices that provide nutrition consulting for those unable to afford an RD. “It took 2 years to hire a management and billing/coding team, along with extensive paperwork, but it’s now an amazing program.”
Focus on Buy-In
“You can’t have a great program if there’s no real buy-in,” says Quincy Williams, health and wellness coordinator for the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. Williams advises company leaders to collaborate with their employees to develop a program based on each employee’s nutrition needs and preferences.
Scoring that buy-in paid off for CMHA, which received the 2017 Healthiest Employer of Central Ohio award and had no increase in its health insurance premiums in 2016—quite a feat considering the agency is only 2 years into its nutrition program. The agency worked with Wellness Matters, a local nutrition-focused company, to create discussions and hands-on activities like cooking family-style meals. Williams says the biggest hit is the biannual Cook-Off Challenge, where participants pair with culinary instructors to see who can make the best dish from a “table of bountiful whole foods and a mystery ingredient.”Gradual Success Is Okay
Tom Langton, CSCS, director of nutrition at Gabriele Fitness & Performance in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, urges patience for those trying to secure client buy-in.
“We’ve been offering nutrition programs since we opened our doors 9 years ago, starting small with conversations and book recommendations. But not all our clients (roughly 225 adults and 150 high-school athletes) are 100% onboard with their nutrition.
“Some just want to come in and train, then go eat whatever they want. But the fact that we have an established program helps them when they do decide to buy in. Sometimes it takes years, but when they want help, we are able to integrate them into our 30-day or 6-week challenges.”
Buy-in, accountability, milestones and incremental changes are themes for all the successful businesses presented here. Langton encourages anyone who’s considering establishing a nutrition program to keep those issues in mind.
“We’ve tried many different approaches and methods, but without a doubt the people who’ve had massive, long-term success have been the ones who started with a few habits, then built on them. Lay out realistic goals for clients. Don’t try to overhaul their lives, as that just adds more stress.”
The Demand Is There
Adding a teaching kitchen or smoothie bar to your facility can pay off. You can serve healthy dinners on the training-room floor or establish a meal delivery service. Providing counseling or challenges works, too.
The success of these kinds of programs suggests that clients will spend money and energy to improve their diets. Whether you can add certifications or degrees to your repertoire or hire experts, the message is clear: Your clients want sound nutrition.