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Eat the Frog Fitness, Rush Bowls make play for Canada


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Eat the Frog Fitness founder Bryan Clay (top) leverages his Olympic gold medalist status in the U.S., while in Canada, Jessie Keillor (below) will look to align the brand with Canadian athletes.

Boxing, cycling, Pilates, yoga, barre and high-intensity interval training studios now make up 42 percent of the U.S. club market, and U.S. franchise brands continue to benefit from the rise of boutique fitness’ popularity. Looking northward, Canadians, too, are demonstrating their affinity for more social, class-based workouts, and as established franchises such as Orangetheory angle to dominate the market, one emerging brand with an Olympic athlete founder wants to secure its own foothold.

International expansion is something Bryan Clay identified as a goal early on in the creation of Eat the Frog Fitness, which he launched in 2016 to offer a mix of instructor-led and virtual group fitness classes in a 24/7 member access model.

“It shows your brand has stickiness not just here but abroad,” says Clay, chief brand officer and 2008 gold medalist in the Olympic decathlon, of establishing the brand outside the U.S. in tandem with its domestic growth efforts.

Partnering with Clay to bring Eat the Frog Fitness to Canada are Jessie Keillor and Brock Dorward, who signed on as area representatives with plans to develop 11 gyms in British Columbia and 10 in Ontario.

Jessie Keillor

Jessie Keillor

Keillor, a former competitive ballroom dancer who “tore all the ligaments” in her ankle and had to quit dancing, was drawn to Eat the Frog for its focus on functional training. The high-intensity, low impact workouts are ideal for those with previous injuries and people at varying levels of fitness, she explains, and members benefit from customized, athlete-designed training plans.  

All that—plus a fitness app and tracking technology—packaged into a studio model that Keillor says Canadians are “gravitating to more than big box gyms,” convinced her to join Dorward in the expansion effort. And that 24/7 access is “huge for British Columbia,” where the first location will open outside Vancouver in September, “because there are lots of shift workers, restaurant workers who want to work out when everything else is closed,” Keillor notes.

Dorward, owner of real estate company Aspen Developments, brings his background as a land developer to the partnership, while Keillor turned to business consulting after her injury and will focus on operations and marketing. The two have already signed sub-franchisees in both provinces and are working to refine the brand message for consumers, who are unfamiliar with a concept that’s “completely new to Canada and still growing in the U.S.,” acknowledges Keillor. The Eat the Frog name “raises curiosity,” she continues (it’s derived from the Mark Twain quote, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”), an advantage that will help the brand cut through the noise, provided it can then tell a clear, compelling story.

“We’ll use different language in how we sell,” says Keillor, explaining Canadian consumers are more receptive to straightforward messaging. The accompanying imagery will also get tweaked. “In the U.S. they use Bryan Clay a lot, so we plan to focus on Canadian athletes and influencers” and will possibly partner with athletes better known to Canadians.

Canada makes for a relatively “easy transition” for a brand based in Issaquah, Washington, just outside Seattle and 153 miles from Vancouver, B.C. But that doesn’t mean Eat the Frog is taking its first international efforts lightly, stresses Clay, noting he and co-founder Joe Culver focused on refining operations at company units in Washington before crossing the border, where they also first had to make sure they could properly support growth. That’s meant ensuring vendors could deliver the necessary equipment and execute on studio design, plus making sure the billing system could process Canadian currency.

Rush Bowls

Franchisee Matt Wecker expects Canadians’ desire for healthy meals to generate business for Rush Bowls in Alberta.

For franchisees, Clay says Eat the Frog’s combination of instructor-led and virtual classes means overhead is low, and while the fitness segment is competitive, the shifting mentality of younger generations is showing “fitness is not necessarily a luxury, but something they have to have.

“It’s a place to have fun, have community and a place that can personalize the experience,” Clay says of Eat the Frog.

“They are an individual in a group. We take the best things from group fitness and combine them with the best of personal training.”

Rush northward

Ready to “have a new adventure,” a helicopter pilot is turning his attention from flight tours to food as he works to expand Colorado-based acai bowl brand Rush Bowls in Alberta.

Matthew Wecker, who sold his E-Z Air Helicopter Services business to become Rush Bowls’ first franchisee in Canada, “looked at everything from a laundromat to a dog grooming business,” before discovering the fast-casual concept that makes blended bowls such as Chai’s Mystique, with banana, almonds, cinnamon, honey, frozen yogurt and chai, topped with organic granola and honey.

“I did the research, met the team in Denver, and I was sold on it,” says Wecker, noting the health-conscious positioning of the brand was particularly appealing. “We don’t really have anything in Canada that serves what Rush Bowls does.”

Wecker formed company Four Honu Inc. and signed a development deal for 10 restaurants in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary, which he describes as three similar cities “with healthy trends coming into the market.”

Matthew Wecker

Matthew Wecker

“Especially over the last couple of years, organic foods, antibiotic-free, gluten-free” are consumer preferences that present an opportunity for a brand such as Rush Bowls, says Wecker. “And definitely a big vegan movement,” to which Rush Bowls caters.

Founded in 2004 by former Wall Street executive Andrew Pudalov, Rush Bowls had just one location in Boulder until 2016, when it launched its franchise program after partnering with Buddy Brown, CEO of Capstone Restaurant Group and franchisee of nearly 300 Hardee’s, plus Carl’s Jr., Dunkin’ and Taco Bell. It now has nine open locations, with another 90-plus sold.

“We see Rush as a global business that started in the U.S.,” says Pudalov. Canada, he notes, “is ahead of other countries on nutrition,” and the demographics of Wecker’s target cities in Alberta have “our sweet spot of young professionals to young families.”

Though still small in unit count, Pudalov says Rush Bowls has the infrastructure in place to “grow quickly, grow well and support our franchisees.” The model itself is simpler to operate than other restaurant concepts because the kitchens don’t have hoods, ovens or grills, just blenders and a freezer, meaning franchisees don’t need prior restaurant experience, says Pudalov. The stores themselves have small footprints of 500 to 1,200 square feet, which keeps real estate costs down

For Wecker, being a first-time restaurant franchisee with a small brand isn’t a concern; it’s actually part of what attracted him to Rush Bowls.

“I’m a very adventurous person,” he says, adding, “Everything that I’ve done with my life I’ve been very successful with.”

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