Joe Zaffuto is a stay-at-home dad who hardly stays at home.
The native New Yorker and former bread vendor for Sara Lee moved to Arkansas from Georgia last fall when his wife — who works for ConAgra Foods — was transferred to Bentonville to work on the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. account.
While Carrie Zaffuto tends to the established retail leader, Joe Zaffuto is involved with another company that’s arguably the leading brand name in its own industry: CrossFit Inc.
The company’s trademarked fitness and strength program — a mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting known as CrossFit — is in the midst of a meteoric rise through its affiliate business model.
CrossFit gyms (known as “boxes”) numbered about 500 in 2008, according to the company’s website.
Last year, that number grew to just more than 4,500, and there are presently about 6,100 affiliates throughout the world, most in the United States, and owned by passionate coaches as their own enterprise.
The growth is being mirrored in Northwest Arkansas. Crossfit NWA, established in October 2008 by Rogers Police Department detective Lee Kelly, was the first to pop up. In fact, it is the oldest of the state’s 41 affiliates.
Zaffuto, who joined CrossFit NWA last fall and eventually became one of the affiliate’s coaches, just opened the newest box. CrossFit Bentonville opened in August in a 3,900-SF space in a retail strip center across from the Benton County Jail. The gym already has about 30 members.
Zaffuto’s box is the fourth to open in the last year, and the tenth affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. All but one of them — CrossFit Born Again in Springdale — is owned by someone who started as a member or coach at CrossFit NWA.
The growth trend was born out of necessity, Zaffuto said.
“There’s enough demand to open up three more [boxes] tomorrow and have enough clients for all of them,” Zaffuto said.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit was developed in the 1970’s by a former gymnast in California named Greg Glassman. His concept was an alternative to the typical practices he kept seeing while lifting weights, that most exercises being utilized by bodybuilders were making them more muscular but not necessarily more effective.
He began incorporating some of his gymnastics-centric moves and exercises into his own weight lifting routine.
Glassman then added a few other power-lifting moves and techniques, dead lifts for example, to augment the program. The result was a philosophy focused more on diversified daily workouts to improve overall fitness, instead of just building bigger muscles.
“The fitness program is not a reinvention of the wheel,” Lee Kelly explained. “It’s back to the basics, but what makes it special are the community aspect and the camaraderie.”
Zaffuto, 40, said it’s a program essentially anyone can participate in, from elite athletes to soccer moms to white-collar executives.
“My grandmother can do this,” he said.
Kelly said his mother, who has a medical history that includes back and neck surgeries, has been a CrossFitter for a year.
“She had never seen the inside of a gym before,” he said. “That’s what is good about it. Everyone can do the same workout as a “firebreather,” what we call a competitive CrossFitter. It is infinitely scaleable for everybody.”
Despite its 1970’s origin, CrossFit didn’t begin its rise in popularity until 2000 when Glassman incorporated the business and started a website. Even then, by 2005, there were just 13 CrossFit affiliates.
Kelly was a longtime member of the Rogers Police Department when he first heard of CrossFit six years ago.
He convinced the RPD he should be CrossFit certified and introduce the program to the department after he heard about the brand from his brother, Fayetteville firefighter Jerry Kelly.
Kelly opened a 1,000-SF “hole-in-the-wall” gym in Rogers in October 2008 that catered initially to fire fighters, police and first responders.
Today, he and his wife Jennifer own the largest box in Northwest Arkansas, with nine coaches and anywhere between 450 and 500 members.
Kelly, 39, has garnered enough clients that he’s moved the box to a larger space five times. CrossFit is now based in a massive 10,000-SF space on Main Street near the downtown square in Bentonville.
Kelly left the RPD in 2011 after 15 years and his sole job is a CrossFit affiliate owner. The box runs nine classes daily from 5:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and averages about 200 members through the doors each day.
To become a CrossFit affiliate owner, a person must first complete a Level I Certification course to become a coach, which takes two days and costs $1,000.
Owners then pay $3,000 annually to CrossFit Inc. so they can be a CrossFit affiliate, and use the brand name.
After that, the startup costs can depend on a number of variables, primarily real estate and amount of equipment.
Kelly guessed it would take anywhere from $25,000 to $30,000 to get a box up and running.
“We grew as we added equipment and I didn’t get a big loan up front,” Kelly said, noting that affiliates must also carry insurance coverage.
Joe Jester, co-owner of CrossFit Commence near the corner of Mission Boulevard and Crossover Road in Fayetteville, said for his box to get off the ground in January took about $60,000.
“It just depends on how much equipment you start with. And we’re in a unique situation because we aren’t paying rent this first year,” said Jester, a former baseball player at the University of Arkansas. “We are profitable right now, but when we start paying rent next January we may be closer to breaking even.”
Jester, 35, said his box is nearing 100 members and runs about 15 classes per week.
It is not for the penny-pinchers. Membership costs can range from $100 to $150 per month — not cheap, but you get what you pay for.
“The membership fees are seen as outrageous, but coaching is everything,” Kelly said.
WOD is the Word
Each affiliate owner has flexibility in size, layout and equipment in their gym. A typical mixture includes rowing machines, medicine balls, pull-up bars, kettlebells and free weights.
There are some exercises that are done outdoors if the space is not large enough like running, pushing weighted sleds and flipping tractor tires.
And of the entire CrossFit lingo, the “WOD” (Workout of the Day) is perhaps the most important.
Classes at each box typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity WOD, and a period of individual or group stretching. Performance on each WOD is often scored and/or ranked to encourage competition and to track progress.
A new WOD is posted each day at crossfit.com. Affiliate owners can use that, or use their own variations for their own box.
An example might be three rounds of: Run 800 meters, 50 deadlifts, 50 sit-ups. When you finish all three exercises, you’ve completed one round.
Another WOD might call for doing as many rounds of the following moves, without taking much rest time between exercises.
Set a timer for 15 minutes and complete 15 kettlebell swings, followed by 10 burpees, 15 body weight squats and 10 pushups.
Finishing all four exercises means you’ve completed one round.
Those are just two of, literally, thousands of WOD examples, and it’s standard practice among CrossFitters to stay on a cycle of working out three consecutive days, then taking a rest day.
Most boxes also require clients to complete an “On Ramp” program, for a fee, before being allowed to participate in daily WOD sessions.
They are generally one-week programs that cover all nine basic fundamental movements necessary to make sure athletes are ready when they enter the group classes.
The competitive aspect of CrossFit is beginning to enter the mainstream. The Reebok CrossFit Games debuted in 2007, but participation and sponsorship grew to a point where the finals of this year’s event in July were broadcast live for the first time by ESPN2.
Local competitions are also common. CrossFit 540 is hosting WOD War I on October 5 at its North location. It will consist of 56 teams of two male and two female athletes competing in six scored events.
So what’s the common trait among all these CrossFitters? There really is no demographic, Jester said.
“It’s scaleable, so it’s appealing to a very broad range,” he said
Russell Wood, a surgeon at Cardiovascular Surgical Clinic of Northwest Arkansas in Fayetteville, said it can initially be intimidating to go and watch a CrossFit workout.
“It looks like it’s something you can’t do if you’re not already a fitness buff,” Wood said. “But it’s something you can do. You just have to get started and resolve to stay with it.”
Wood, 56, said the extent of his fitness activity was an occasional jog before he finally gave in to friends and co-workers about the benefits of CrossFit. He’s been a member of CrossFit Commence since it opened in January.
Getting in better shape, losing weight (30 pounds) and having more energy have been the biggest results, Wood said, but the supportive environment and camaraderie among CrossFitters have also been critical components to reaching his goals.
“It’s the type of environment that I feel comfortable with,” he said. “The key is that everybody in that gym will help you. I look forward to it every day.”
Jenni A. Cook, an associate attorney with the Fayetteville office of Gamache & Myers, remembers her introduction to CrossFit in January 2010.
“It was brutal and miserable and I couldn’t wait to go back the next day,” she recalled.
Cook, 40, is a member of CrossFit 540 and said a good box session can help relieve the stresses of a busy work day.
“There’s something about the sound of weights falling to the ground that I like,” said Cook. “For an hour, that workout is all you think about, not who offended you or work or anything like that. You’re just trying to survive that workout.”
Rob Gehring, 46, moved to Bentonville about two years ago and became a CrossFit NWA member about a month later.
He said a key benefit of CrossFit is the instruction and not having to worry about developing his own fitness plan.
“It takes a lot of the second guessing out of it,” said Gehring, president of Global Walmart/Sam’s Club Group for Coca-Cola Refreshments. “There are always coaches working the room, and you get so much more feedback in the form of coaching and proper techniques. It’s a programmed workout every day versus figuring it out for yourself.”
He added working out in large, supportive groups is like a “mini-competition” every day.
“The momentum the class creates elevates your performance to a new level,” Gehring said. “It elevates the intensity of your workout and you get better results.”