Hyperlocal isn’t just a marketing concept for the owners of Biker Barre, a boutique fitness studio that pairs spinning with ballet-style barre classes, in Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s their foundation. “Our DNA is being in the neighborhood,” says co-owner Katie Fouts, 33, who opened the studio with Jane Brodsky, 35, in May 2012. “That also means working with the neighborhood, using the neighborhood.”
Situated in a narrow row house on a residential street, Biker Barre brings in approximately $750,000 in annual revenue from its nearly 70 classes a week. Clients range from the politically savvy to college students to stay-at-home parents. Waitlists and sold-out classes are common. It’s in the extras, beyond standard classes, where Biker Barre can really leverage the community: Trainers are encouraged to be creative and host Friday night “dance parties” in the spin studio. A partnership with a local dry cleaner lets members drop off their sweaty clothes at the studio right after class. Instructors will bring classes to the popular and health-conscious salad shop, sweetgreen, a few blocks away, after an hour of intense spinning, and special packages have included a wine tasting at a shop around the corner. Even a few political deals have reportedly been greased from friendships at Biker Barre, though Fouts and Brodsky say they can’t spin and tell.
Why is the Capitol Hill neighborhood so important to Biker Barre?
Fouts: One of the things we were looking for was a really close-knit community. We had a good vision of what our brand meant, and what we wanted it to become. One of those things was a brand that was not only successful monetarily, but for our clients. We want people to come in and keep coming back.
Our model only works in a neighborhood where people move there in order to know their neighbors. [Capitol Hill is] a well-off neighborhood full of really interesting people. A boutique fitness studio is one of the few things that offers people a chance to interact. Those little interactions mean so much.
Brodsky: Working on the Hill and in politics for as long as I did means I know a lot of people in the area. Clients are our best advertisements, and having a personal connection with so many of them means we can get the word out even faster.
You have partnered with a number of local businesses, from wine shops to local restaurants. Why is that important?
Fouts: What we want is someone to come into Biker Barre, see someone every day in class, and then run into her at DCanter [a wine store], and realize, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the girl from class.’ We have really cool political stories — and I don’t know if we can actually share names — but it involves a senior person on one side of the aisle and a senior person on the other side of the aisle becoming friends, and deals got done. That’s what we want to foster. And in order to foster it, community partnerships are totally a part of our strategy. It is intentional.
Pictured: Katie Fouts and Jane Brodsky
Would you ever consider franchising? If so, what would that look like, considering how important the Capitol Hill community is to your business?
Fouts: Not franchising, but expanding. We’ve looked at franchising; it might be an option down the line, [but] Jane and I are both big on quality control. You hear that more from us when we talk about our instructors and how proud we are of our training programs. I think we would want to continue to own. Certainly there are ways to have franchises where you own the training and you own the instructor development at a higher level, but to the extent where we could own Biker Barres — I think expanding is a possibility we’re excited about. There is a lot of room in D.C. for more boutique fitness.
You both had notable business and political careers before starting up Biker Barre. How has that influenced the way you run the studio?
Fouts: I learned a lot through my previous career in marketing — not just regarding marketing, but also understanding how people work as employees and clients. It helps us predict problems, be supportive and create the community that is Biker Barre.
Brodsky: I joke that I never use my law degree from Georgetown, but that's definitely not true, because a lot of what we do requires critical thinking and problem solving. For example, we recently needed to have some work done on the building. When deciding whether or not to do all of the work at once, I wanted to know how many classes we would need to cancel, how much it would cost and what we should do now and what we should leave until another time.
You were able to reduce opening costs at Biker Barre by putting off some desired elements at the studio, too. What did you put off purchasing, and can you tell us more about how you made the decision?
Fouts: We keep talking about making an investment in a nicer locker system. Lockers with electronic locks are $10,000 to $12,000. It’s a pretty big thing; they have to be custom-made. But that’s something that, once we have some money in the bank, we would like to consider. We ended up going with custom-built cubbies [instead]. In the end, the experience our clients have is still top-notch, but we were able to reduce our startup costs enough to get the doors open.
Brodsky: A better example is the retail wall we put up [of Lululemon items]. It was so mind-boggling expensive to do that; I was shocked. We didn’t have that at first — we just had a rack with some T-shirts on it. I am really happy that we didn’t put that up in the first month and that we were able to grow.
Fouts: Yes, starting inexpensively and growing into it means a couple of things: Number one, we’re growing into it when we can afford to grow into it. Two, we’re doing things we know our clients want and need. We’re not throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks. We know our clients like Lululemon; we’re the only studio in D.C. that has been asked to sell it. Are we going to? Heck yeah. We wouldn’t have had the money to do it upfront, but now further down the line, it’s a decision that makes sense.
What have you learned about opening a small business, and what advice would you give to others?
Fouts: One thing I learned was that you should negotiate. If you are going to start a business — and it’s going to work — you need to be able to push back on almost everything. Second, become a mini-expert on things you would have never previously been comfortable being an expert on: like for me, socket wrenches. For small fixes on the bike, we are able to do those in-house, as opposed to farming it out. It saves us a lot of money.
Stacey Goers (@staceygoers) lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, where she works at CQ Roll Call Group and is immersed in all things Congress. As a break from the political heat, she writes for the beer-drinking website PorchDrinking.com and is trying to become an expert on Virginia wine country.