Delivered by the same doctor only four months apart, Cory Brightwell and Nick Barshick were born with the entrepreneurial spirit.
Their parents, Charles Brightwell and Ray Barshick, were business partners behind Souper Salad, a salad bar-concept restaurant chain that grew to more than 50 units before it was sold.
The sons – best friends destined to partner in business as well – took their first entrepreneurial leap together about 10 years ago while living in San Diego. The venture grew out of their shared upbringing around athletics, healthy foods and a customer service-based business.
Cory Brightwell, who had worked at Souper Salad restaurants, said the importance of customer experience and value was drilled into him.
The result is Chuze Fitness, a chain of health clubs that has grown to 21 locations, including 14 in Southern California, four around Tucson in Arizona, and three in the Denver market. Three more locations are on pace to open by the end of the year.
Like Souper Salad, the business model focuses on customer service and value, which took shape in a membership fee starting at $9.99 per month.
Cory Brightwell and Nick Barshick were joined by Nick’s brother-in-law, Kris Peterson, in targeting San Diego for the company’s first location.
“We were not impressed with what members were getting out there,” Cory said of the San Diego market. “They were being overcharged and underserved.”
Chuze Fitness aims to set itself apart by “the way we treat our members, how we make them feel, know their names, and how we keep our facilities,” said Cory, whose godfather is Ray Barshick.
This meant an obsessive and intense focus on customer experience. To accomplish that in a “value” model, they needed the volume of a large number of members.
Before members could train in the gym, the business partners developed a rigorous onboarding program for all part- and full-time employees. The training consisted of four hours of role playing and problem solving, with the goal of determining ways to make all customer interactions excellent.
The Chuze Fitness mantra is: “Okay is not OK.”
Challenged by the task of keeping their monthly membership fee under $10 while offering top-notch customer experience, it took the first group of Chuze Fitness locations between eight and 16 months to break even. By the time Chuze opened its fourth location, it took four months to break even.
The expansion plan mirrored that of Souper Salad, which also had locations and community relationships in Arizona and Colorado.
Each Chuze Fitness location serves an average of 7,000 members. The newer clubs average 35,000 to 40,000 square feet, but all clubs have more equipment than necessary to handle peak usage. Additional amenities include a theater-style big screen in front of cardio equipment, an infrared sauna, and hydromassage lounge chairs.
The family foundation at Chuze Fitness extends to Tucson, where Cory Brightwell’s cousin is a general manager.
Charles Brightwell and Ray Barshick came out of retirement to participate in the management of Chuze Fitness and the search for new locations.
But working with family presents its own challenges. Cory Brightwell said “family members are scrutinized more intently” than anyone else. Cory also had reservations about bringing in his father.
“[My father] was my coach in all my sports, and over time I wanted to move on from him telling me what to do.” But reflecting on his father’s success, Cory said he “knew that I needed to soak up his wisdom.”
And they all shared the same goal: “To be the best fitness company out there, that’s offering the most value, at the best price, and the best member experience. I wouldn’t want to be in business with anybody else.”