It was at a beach house on the Jersey Shore that Jim Loperfido was first introduced to the idea of intense functional training.
And by none other than Lieutenant Michael Murphy.
“Mike was engaged to my cousin Heather when he was killed in Operation Red Wing in 2005,” explained Loperfido. “Mike put me through SEAL workouts at a family beach house on the Jersey Shore, and that is when I learned what a true physical challenge felt like. Since then I have craved the intensity, but discovered CrossFit formally when I was working in Los Angeles in 2010.”
Despite a poor experience at an LA Box, as it lacked a foundations program, Loperfido stuck with the regimen when he moved to New York in 2011. There, he fell in love with the traditional gritty form of CrossFit.
Unbeknownst to Loperfido, Tristan Keeffe moved from Australia to the States at the end of 2009. In 2011, he too found CrossFit, and in 2012, they met at a gym in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
“It would be fair to say we both caught the bug at the same time. Honestly, the analytical mind in me looked at the methodology and asked, ‘How did I not find this sooner?’” said Keeffe. “This makes so much more sense than everything else we were looking at.”
Eventually, that little “bug” would spawn into a giant, jeweled beetle — Solace New York.
At 11,000 square feet of space, the Box rests only a few blocks from the Empire State Building. While Solace opened in 2014, it had a long road to get the business where it is today.
For starters, neither knew the other was thinking about opening a gym at first. However, eventually the stars aligned. And after they did, Loperfido, Keeffe and Chad McDonald — the third original founder of Solace — would run full speed ahead with their idea.
“We didn’t know each other that well,” said Keeffe. “Honestly, it was a lot of alignment of vision, so that really was the foundation of when we got together and said, ‘Let’s do this together’ … It’s funny looking back now and saying five years ago if I had looked at this person I just met and said let’s get into business together, it does sound a little crazy in hindsight.”
Solace had to overcome other obstacles on top of having founders who barely knew each other. For example, there’s a bit of a difference in cost when it comes to opening a Box in New York versus a small, Midwest town. Needing high ceilings, large spaces and a floor that would allow 300 pounds to be dropped without shaking the above tenants, there were a lot of requirements that had to be met in order for Solace to succeed in a building.
Even after opening, they had to think about the cost of the space and if it was worth it. Keeffe explained one key data point they view to determine this is utilization, as in how much space is available in a class across the span of a day? They aim for 70 percent utilization per class, although it can vary due to weather and such. However, quantifying your business can help you deliver a better product. “The data will decide what you need to know,” he said.
But from the start, Loperfido and Keeffe had a vision. In order to achieve it in New York, they pursued investors. While that meant less control of their business, Keeffe said in the long run it made them quantify the market and know what their exact steps would be. It took about nine months until they found the space in which Solace is now located.
They also knew they had to serve their market differently than what everyone else was doing. For example, Keeffe said it’s not sensible to tell a New Yorker they couldn’t shower at the Box, especially when they’re paying nearly $300 a month for a membership. So they became a “posh” Box, as Loperfido put it, with exposed wood walls and amenities for the busy New Yorker.
Solace has expanded beyond just CrossFit as well. Keeffe said they watched a lot of Boxes trying to fit too much into one hour of the day, often due to trying to meet membership requests. So the question was how to fulfill members’ desires while not bastardizing CrossFit? The answer was to keep each element pure, offering everything from a separate gymnastics class to a weightlifting program. With over 60 classes on the schedule each week, it complicates things drastically, said Keeffe.
However, if they hadn’t been open to being different, the Body program would never have evolved out of Solace. Kenny Santucci, the program director at the gym, is the creator of Body. He arrived at Solace after Keeffe and Loperfido asked him to come onboard.
The funny thing is, Santucci had been a previous Affiliate owner in New Jersey; a falling out sent him back to New York. But, the time as an owner inspired dedication and enthusiasm at Solace. Loperfido and Keeffe gave Santucci the ball and he took off with it, building the program to where it is today.
While the drive to be an influencer was a great push for Santucci, he said it’s often the things you do in the dark that people don’t see which matter the most. “It’s the countless hours, it’s the early mornings, it’s the late nights,” he said. “Every person I look at is an opportunity for me to help them and I do care, and it’s a labor of love. I’ll keep doing it as long as there’s people who want to learn.”
Santucci is just one of 40 team members at Solace — a number neither Loperfido nor Keeffe had managed before. One of the early lessons they learned as they brought on more team members was they needed to clearly explain what was going on and why decisions were being made. In fact, there was even a breakdown in community for awhile due to ineffective communication. Keeffe said you can’t operate in a vacuum. “Ultimately, you miss out on really good ideas,” he explained. “We’re smart enough to realize we’re not that smart.”
In fact, the Solace founders were very forthcoming about their mistakes. Last February, they tried a new class cap of 30, doubling it from 15 and adding another Coach on the floor. While it succeeded in hitting all the numbers they had hoped for, it backfired in one big way: the shower line doubled and there were overcrowding issues. So they went back to the way things were. “That’s a pretty common thing our members would say about us, is that we try stuff all the time, and we don’t always get it right,” said Keeffe.
Brett Frank became a member at Solace four months after it opened. He confirmed that while the founders change things up, they truly care about what the community thinks. “They’ve come to me multiple times to ask, ‘Hey Brett, what’s the pulse of the community?’” he said. “Even on the flip side, I’ve gone to them and said, ‘Hey guys, I don’t think this is such a great idea’ … They truly do care. It’s not about dollars and cents for them. It’s about running a place that people enjoy and want to be at.”
Because at its core, that’s what Solace is: a place of respite from the exhilarating but exhausting life that is New York City. Its goal is to be a step away from the craziness, the love-hate relationship that exists with Manhattan. And that’s why the name resonated with the founders on a park bench down in the East Village.
“Solace employs CrossFit as a means to provide a healthy, active lifestyle for its members,” said Loperfido. “Thus, we focus on mitigating the damage from excessive hours deskbound, partying and living in the city that never sleeps.”