The decision to offer a café at the Fayetteville Athletic Club was one that was practically made for Bob Shoulders, owner of the Fayetteville, AR, club. Four years ago, he added a children's center and a tennis center in a $3 million expansion. His research into the tennis market led him to add the restaurant to the tennis center.
“Tennis people like to stick around and watch other people play when they get finished,” Shoulders says, referring to his research. His café serves wraps, sandwiches, smoothies and soups.
Offering a juice bar or café in a club is not just for the tennis crowd, and it is certainly not new to the industry. In 2001, 44 percent of International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) member clubs had a snack/juice bar facility, according to a survey by the organization. That number has remained fairly constant through 2007, when the latest survey showed that 43 percent of member clubs offered snack/juice bar facilities, according to Rosemary Lavery, public relations coordinator for IHRSA.
Debbie Lee, marketing director at Gainesville Health and Fitness Center in Gainesville, FL, says that almost all the clubs that she is familiar with offer some kind of juice or smoothie bar, if not a café.
“Twenty years ago, you would find that few clubs had juice or smoothie bars, but today, when you build a health club — unless there's some really good reason not to — you've got a smoothie bar,” Lee says. Gainesville Health has had a smoothie bar since the late 1980s.
Two years ago, Equinox Fitness Clubs, New York, partnered with a New York chef to open an upscale sandwich eatery in its facilities. Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, also partnered with a chef to open upscale restaurants in some of its clubs. LA Fitness, Irvine, CA, offers food and beverages to members at its 50 clubs through an agreement with a café company. Recently, the Downtown YMCA in Nashville, TN, announced a massive expansion that will include a café.
Designed as a convenience for club members, juice/smoothie bars can give members healthy food options, create a social environment and help retain club members. However, making them profitable isn't always easy, which is why some club owners and executives have decided to stay away from the idea.
“We are not real believers in them, and we look at it like this: We are in the health club business, not food service. We keep that for the professionals,” says Chris Rondeau, CEO of World Gym Franchising.
Other club owners, however, are eager to offer these services to their members, but they often know that to make them work, they must either offer them as an amenity and accept minimal revenue or profits, or they must outsource their operation.
One club that is taking on the operation of a café on its own is Telos Fitness Center, an upscale, one-club operation in Dallas. When Brent Darden, co-owner of Telos, purchased the club several years ago, it already had a large restaurant, kitchen and eating area. Darden decided to maintain the café as an amenity for members. The café offers 30 smoothies, five gourmet salads, tacos, baked chicken and fish.
“We are a luxury-level club, and it helps separate us from our competition with something not everyone has, which is a full-service restaurant,” Darden says. “We have a chef in our club, Jack Jabara, who's been with us since we took over and is responsible for creating the menu.”
Darden acknowledges that with a full-service restaurant run by the club's employees and a chef, his club is an anomaly in the industry.
“Over time and almost without exception, clubs with [club-run cafés] didn't fare very well,” he says. “There have been several clubs around Dallas that have closed, and with virtually all of those clubs, before they actually closed the doors on the entire club, the restaurants had at some point closed first or at least were reduced dramatically in hours. It's all about members' foot traffic, and unfortunately, sometimes there's just not enough to sustain a restaurant.”