Franchise Times — March 2010
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Belly Up to the Bar
Nancy Weingartner

Devotees of this hybrid exercise set the tone for franchise offer

It’s the little movements in exercise that count, apparently. The Lotte Berk Method has been around for decades, but all of a sudden it seems to be catching on with the exercise elite who want to live longer and leaner.

Sherri DiMarco didn’t just have to go through the interview process and show off her financial prowess when she wanted to become a franchisee—she also had to audition for the part.

Dressed in workout clothes, DiMarco first took a class alongside the founder of The Bar Method, Burr Leonard, and then taught Leonard her own method—from how to stretch after seat work to how to hold a pelvic tilt and a ballet bar while doing small pliés to sculpt the thighs—in a 60-minute class.

“It was scary,” the banking attorney-turnedfranchisee admitted.

And while Burger King’s management isn’t concerned with their franchisees’ appearance, to be a Bar Method franchisee you have to sport “a body having the potential to show the benefits of the Bar Method,” according to franchise literature sent out to prospective franchisees.

Leonard developed The Bar Method when, as a licensee of the Lotte Berk method, she was concerned her students weren’t getting the best results they could. She worked with a physical therapist to limit the number of exercises in a class and to make them safer.

Leonard’s sister introduced her to the exercise regime developed by a flamboyant German ballet dancer that combines the best of ballet, yoga and Pilates. Like the better-known Joseph Pilates, Berk developed the strict discipline as a way to rehab the body, as well as make it stronger.

And like the resulting program, Pilates, the Bar Method has been adopted by the exercise elite who want a dancer’s body, not Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.

“I did it faithfully for 10 years,” Leonard says.

Her reward was a well-toned, ageless body. “I was blown away,” she says about that first class.

“I felt completely different.” The exercises rely on tiny tucks and crunches that burn by working the muscles to fatigue, and then stretching the muscles to produce those long, lean muscles dancers have. It’s also a cardio workout. “It changes your body; your seat lifts and you can no longer live without a lifted seat,” Leonard, now in her 60s, says.

At the time, Leonard had no intention of reaping anything from the classes but exercise.

She was a journalist, the daughter of George Leonard, president emeritus of the famed Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, who had authored several books on human potential.

Her father, a 5th-degree black belt in aikido, developed the Leonard Energy Training, a practice for centering the mind, body and spirit.

Leonard wasn’t thinking of following suit.

But in the early 1990s, she took her new husband, Carl Diehl, to a class and “he noticed how much I loved it,” she says. Diehl, a lawyer/ entrepreneur, convinced her this would be the perfect business for them to own. Leonard, who describes herself as “a writer and an introspective person,” wasn’t sure she wanted to put herself at the front of her class. “But you can’t say no to Carl,” she explains. “He’s the entrepreneurial side. I’m the arty side.” They opened four studios in Connecticut until they had a falling out with the licensor.

The couple sold their studios to one of their instructors and moved to California where they opened a Bar Method studio in the Marino district of San Francisco in late summer of 2001.

Leonard had discovered she liked teaching; and Diehl liked growing the concept. Her sister, Mimi Fleischman, tested the concept in the Los Angeles area, opening up two studios in the perfect area for exercise fanatics. Her Hollywood studio draws stars, like Drew Barrymore and Denise Richards, who attend classes regularly.

The west L.A. studio attracts more young moms and working women, Fleischman says.

Fleischman, on a side note, knows how celebrities exercise their options. She was married to Jerry Rubin, the Yippie to Yuppie Chicago Seven defendant from the Vietnam War protest era. She is currently married to Mark Fleischman, former owner of Studio 54, a famous New York night spot. She was also featured in the February issue of More magazine, under the heading “Born-Again Bellies,” talking about her “Tummy Turnaround,” compliments of taking The Bar Method classes six times a week.

Why it works The Bar Method is just one of several franchises or licensing opportunities that has spun off the Lotte Berk method. Other examples are Cardio Barre, Pure Barre, Karve and Barre3.

Several founders have their own DVD.

But it’s not a fad, according to Leonard.

“People can do this forever,” she says. Most students initially sign up for what it can do for their shape and stay with it for what it does for their health, she adds.

That’s not something you see with other exercise models, such as kettlebells. “You don’t see people doing that three times a week for 30 years and being excited about it,” Leonard points out.

March 2010 The problemwith yoga, she contends, is that it has the mind/body connection to reduce stress and strengthen the muscles, but it can’t make the subtle changes in a body that the Bar Method and its ilk can.

And while many exercises tout the positive effects of Pilates, Leonard doesn’t think it has the ability to change the body as dramatically as her method, either.

Before becoming a franchisee, DiMarco says she discovered the Bar Method while walking to a Chicago Cubs game. Since there was nothing like it in her home state of Florida, she ordered The Bar Method DVD and started doing the workout on her own. A marathon runner, who had taken some yoga classes and studied ballet for 14 years, DiMarco says she thought she was already in pretty good shape. “But this took it to another whole level,” she enthuses. “In three to four weeks, I noticed I had abs, plus clothes fit me differently.” She talked to competitors ofThe Bar Method before deciding to sign on. She went to friends and family for loans and opened her studio with four or five teachers on staff. Plus she’ll have a full teaching load as well. Her husband will be keeping his day job for now, she adds.

Finding teachers isn’t easy, Leonard says, because they have to have a number of skill sets.

According toDiehl, a teacher isn’t someone who leads from the front of the room while taking the class along with the students. They must demonstrate the move and then walk around to ensure the students are doing it correctly, all while cuing the moves to the music. In addition, they have to be able to greet each student by name and make them feel connected.

The majority of the teachers start as students.

Since most people take the classes three times a week, they learn the routine from repetition.

There aren’t a lot of new moves added to keep students from becoming bored. The results are what keep students coming back time regularly, Leonard says.

Bending over backwards While some franchisor may be tempted to scale down their offering to make it more affordable, Diehl and Leonard will not compromise on the model itself. They will not license it to other fitness studios. Nor can someone buy it as an investment.The owner must be a teacher and an endorsement of the product. Even Diehl has taught classes.

Studios have to be dedicated purely to Bar Method classes, no adding the exercise flavor of the month. It takes $100,000 on the low end to open a studio, but usually runs closer to $250,000 to $500,000, Diehl says.

“Financing is hard,” Diehl admits. “We don’t have the resources to lend, and I’m not sure we would if we could.” The studios may not look like they would cost that much, but commercial fit-up is expensive, according to Diehl. There are the ballet bars themselves, plus special flooring, floor-toceiling mirrors, stereo systems and changing rooms with showers.

How do you qualify for a franchise? Practice, practice, practice. Diehl receives three to 10 e-mails a day from prospective franchisees. “I send them a report and never hear back from most of them,” he says. The report, besides laying out the reality, also requires the prospect to have taken classes regularly or advise get a copy of the DVD and practice could teach a class.

The current franchise fee is $30 a royalty fee of 3 percent of gross r Studios are either 2,000 or 3,000 squ feet. “A 3,000-square-foot studio typically has operating expenses that are around 50 percent higher than the 2,000-square-foot studio,” the literature states.There are currently 33 franchisees open with seven in the pipeline.

The recession may have an impact down the road, but for now, Diehl says they still have waiting lists in some of their studios. Classes can be scheduled online or from the person’s iPhone or Blackberry.

Students—both by word of mouth and look of body—are their marketing. “We have virtually no advertising,” he claims.The classes are not cheap, especially since achieving the desired results means showing up at the bar at least three times a week. Students—mostly women, but some men—range from young mothers with high-grossing husbands to a “PBS editor who spends $2,000 a year here and has no other activities,” Diehl says.The average class costs $20 to $25.

Although Leonard and Diehl still work together, they are no longer married.

“I’m the obstetrician, she’s the pediatrician,” he says. “I provide the platform for her to do the work.”What’s it like working for your ex? “It’s like marriage after marriage,” Diehl quips.

“I adore Carl,” Leonard says. “We’ve developed a post-divorce friendship. We went through some rough times when we were developing the business. It’s hard to partner with a spouse. Now, we’ve put that aside.”