Muscle Mile: Gyms Replace Altars on Mission St.

Exterior of Pop Physique. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

The roughly 4,000-square-foot space at 2310 Mission Street has been home to many things—a coffee shop, a furniture showroom and even a storefront church. While it’s no longer a church, a fervor remains. For $75 to $140 per hour session, the private fitness studio bodyFi preaches the gospel of TRX suspension training, Pilates spring boards, kettle bells and more.

BodyFi is one of four fitness studios that have opened on Mission Street in the last few years. In space where discount stores and evangelical churches once dominated, young professionals are now working up a sweat. There are even plans to turn part of the iconic Cine Latino Theater on Mission and 22nd Streets into some sort of a gym.

Although, you may not want to use that word, gym.

“This is a private training studio, not a gym,” said John Nguyen, founder of bodyFi—which opened on Mission Street in March of 2013—after two years running a Financial District location. Its brightly-lit, hardwood interior, which includes three separate studios, offers 30-minute workout small group classes with a variety of equipment and private personal training sessions.

BodyFi, and many of the new crop of Mission Street fitness businesses such as Rogue and Saint, which opened in June near 15th Street, and Pop Physique, which opened in August between 24th and 23rd streets, are not your standard treadmill and free-weight-type places. They’re highly specialized, often highly-stylized, boutique studios for private and small group training.

Tucked between Pollo Campero and a Boost Mobile, Pop Physique adds a discordantly glossy exterior to a block known for its funk. A poster of a lithe dancer in a scanty leotard writhing in a sea of pink balls offers passersby a provocative clue into the uses of this new space. Given its gleaming glass storefront and minimalist white and black-tiled lobby, if you didn’t know better you’d think Pop Physique could be some kind of art gallery or maybe an American Apparel.

Pop Physique’s website offers this insight into the L.A.-based exercise brand’s unique aesthetic: “Raw Emotion. Dreams. Talent. Plastic Facades. Los Angeles was the only city that Pop Physique could be born in. As much as the world hates L.A., the world wants to be L.A.”

It’s part of an effort to make it very clear that Pop Physique is not just any other gym, says Stephanie Farrell, the company’s director of operations.

“We want to stand out; working out has become a little bit more cookie-cutter,” Farrell says. “We want to offer an experience that is a little bit special, that clients wouldn’t get at any other gym. To get the Pop experience they need to come to our studio.”

Started in 2010 in L.A. by ballet dancer Jennifer Williams, Pop Physique uses the Lotte Berk system, a ballet-based Barre method, in one-hour “Pop Sculpt” classes. Classes come with carefully selected playlists for dancing (more Lana Del Rey, less Tchaikovsky). After growing in popularity in Southern California with 14 locations, Pop Physique opened a Russian Hill studio in 2012. They found their Mission Street location earlier this year, formerly the Golden Plaza Discount Store, and after a $75,000 build-out, opened what appears to be a success.

Farrell says business has been good. Classes, which cost $20 for a drop-in and less if you buy packages, have been mostly booked on nights and weekends and at almost 80 percent full in the day.

“People in L.A. like to work out, but people in San Francisco are super serious about it,” Farrell says of the demand for fitness studios. “In the Mission, people hold us to a really high standard; they tend to be really fit and very active…People here spin and hike, and do all their other workouts, but then still come to do Pop.”

Farrell says Pop Physique opened up shop on Mission Street because of a belief that there was “a real desire for a studio like ours in the area…so far it’s been really great.”

If Pop Physique is the Sofia Coppola of Mission Street’s new fitness studios—washed-out, SoCal, slightly disaffected—Rogue and Saint is the Dante Alighieri—baroque and concerned with the very nature of Man’s soul.

When speaking about his new business, co-founder Behnam Vadi is quick to get into a discussion about the duality of human existence, using phrases like “yin and yang” and “dark and light.”

“There’s a rogue and saint in all of us, these two different aspects,” Vadi says. “We need two different modalities to access those different parts.”

As such, Rogue and Saint has two different rooms. The “Saint Studio” features Pilates spring boards, soft light and leafy houseplants. The “Rogue Box” is for more high BMP (Beats Per Minute) workout classes. With its suspended pull-up bars, red lighting and bold comic-book graphic wall decals, it looks a bit like a dungeon. Vadi hopes to install a DJ turntable in the Rogue Box later this year.

Similarly priced to Pop Physique, Rogue and Saint is about $20 for a single class and less for packages, and Vadi thinks boutique training studios like these are a growing trend in the business of exercise.

“What’s happening in the industry is you have one group of people going to your Bally Total Fitness or what not, these are big spaces with lots of equipment that can accommodate 200 to 300 people,” said Vadi, whose Rogue and Saint rooms can accommodate at most a combined 36 people. “People get lost in the shuffle and a lot of people want more personal interaction.”

Vadi says his customers want additional attention, and can pay slightly more than a monthly gym membership, but may not want to go all-out for premium personal training sessions.

Who are the Rogues and Saints coming into is new studio?

“Tech is dominating San Francisco,” Vadi says. “Every studio out there has the tech kids.”

Nguyen of bodyFi, which offers some group classes but is more geared towards personal training, used to work in tech himself, as a product manager at the computer graphics company Nvidia. He says a lot of tech employees are coming in for personal training.

“Being on Mission Street, we expected more Spanish-speaking clientele, but there’s been very little of that,” Nguyen said. “There’s a lot of walk-in traffic and a lot of diversity—that was a positive surprise.”

Given the novelty of high-end boutique gyms on Mission Street, Nguyen has to do a lot of explaining.

“People come in and ask about monthly membership, and I have to tell them we’re not a traditional gym,” Nguyen said.

Prior to opening up a physical studio, Nguyen was a personal trainer who had many clients in the Mission. Given the availability of a ground-floor space at a decent price, coming to Mission Street made sense.

“Mission Street is so run-down and I saw the potential of turning what was here into something beautiful and welcoming for our clients,” said Nguyen of the location.

Farrell says Pop Physique welcomes the eclectic foot traffic of Mission Street.

“A lot of people come in off the street that wouldn’t go to Pop Physique just by looking at the website,” said Farrell, who explains that the Mission studio has attracted a slightly older demographic than their typical L.A. classes, as well as more mothers with children.

On a recent afternoon, as women in their 30s and 20s sipped vitamin water after class in Pop Physique’s lobby, two elderly women walked by on Mission Street and stopped in front of the storefront. They peered into the lobby for a long moment, pressing their faces against the glass. Deciding not to go in and investigate this surprising new space, they continued their walk down Mission—though not before taking a Pop Physique flier.

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15 Comments

  1. 24-24

    Local groups needed to make sure he has to play latino music in there 3 days a week.

  2. Runforthehills

    The less churches the better.

  3. Backtotheburbs

    Ah, so we are essentially LA now – need to pay people to look good.

    But what about a decent grocery store in the neighborhood? People don’t need to eat? They get all their meals at work? Or ordered through an app?
    Or maybe they’re just drinking water and workin out – sounds like LA …

    • Old Mission Neighbor

      Would love to have a decent grocery store in the neighborhood! The old Delano’s spot on Van Ness between 23rd/24th would be perfect. I don’t see what this has to do with a a tiny gym, though.

  4. They LA/Mariniaization of the Mission is almost complete.

  5. godzuki

    If you ever want to laugh really hard, look at Rogue and Saint’s website…. These boutiquey gyms are too funny with the corny marketing. There’s also two crossfit gyms across the street from each other in SOMA. Just funny… Pop Physique looks like the raided the dumpster behind American Apparel for their ad photos…

  6. pam

    “Plastic facade” is a selling point? And who exactly are their clients? They say tech, but tech workers actually, you know, work (and probably have work-out facilities on their employers’ premises). The rest of us who live in the neighborhood probably wouldn’t darken their door, because those places are just more gentrification making the neighborhood less of a neighborhood. Is it Noe Valley moms?

  7. Old Mission Neighbor

    Probably witches. We shall burn them at the stake. Yes, definitely witches.

  8. Ok

    I’m still waiting for the “here come the Asians” comments

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