The gym was prone to flash floods. Joe Riggio had worked in the space years prior as an employee of its then-tenant, well before he started Varsity House Gym, and well before Varsity House moved there. He remembered the flooding, but the landlord assured him it wasn’t an issue anymore.
“One day, I actually sandbagged about a dozen women in the gym as it started to torrentially downpour. I saw the floodwaters coming up, I closed the doors, and sandbagged everyone in—I’m outside in my truck, and [co-owner Dan Goodman]’s inside with about a dozen women with ShopVacs and mops,” Riggio recounted. “That space battled us from the summer we were there, but we made it home; and over the five-and-a-half years we were there, we made a lot of connections and got a lot smarter.”
The training center has been a Bergen County institution for 15 years to its now 350-plus members, including several professional sportsmen. Riggio and Goodman signed a lease May 12 at a building in Ridgewood, declaring that now—on the heels of more than a year of pandemic restrictions that caused as many as 1 in 4 gyms to permanently close, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association—is the time to expand.
“You’ve seen the industry collapse a little bit, and now there’s a need. It’s supply and demand. There’s a lot of demand now, and we wanted to be out ahead of that demand,” Goodman said. “By us growing, it also gives some of the younger team members here the ability to grow with us. We’ve had a lot of people work extremely hard, and I want to provide real career opportunities to people who’ve devoted themselves to the Varsity House brand,” he added.
Riggio opened Varsity House in 2006, initially in a small Northvale garage, which he shared. He focused exclusively on student athletes from middle school to college. Goodman played college football and was at the time one of his athletes.
Their partnership was informal at first: Riggio promised Goodman $100 a head if he recruited more athletes and Goodman showed up the next day with a carful of his little brother’s friends. Along with the business, their own coach-athlete mentorship grew; Goodman graduated from college interested in owning a gym, and timelines aligned for them to move Varsity House to a new location and transition into co-ownership.
Unfortunately, that was the flood-prone location.
“To make light of the sandbag story, we had people inside the gym and we were locking them inside and they were helping us bail water out of the place,” Goodman said. “That’s a situation where someone with negative self-talk would say, ‘that’s it, nobody is ever going to come back, this facility stinks, we can never have success here in this space.’ And we just looked at it as a challenge.
“It was something that challenged us to provide an even better level of service and customer experience with the training. We didn’t have the facility to hang our hat on, where a lot of [gym owners] will build a new facility and be like, ‘built it and they will come’ … that wasn’t our space. We had to build an incredible experience,” he said. “Now we’re fortunate enough to have a facility that matches the client experience.”
Life got less soggy in 2014 when Varsity House moved to a 20,000-square-foot facility that straddled the New York border, its front door across the state line in Orangeburg. Three years prior, one of the athlete’s parents harangued Riggio enough to consider opening a training program for adults—something he was never interested in doing and tried his best to avoid.
“Lance Drucker wore me down,” Riggio said. “I figured I’d brutalize him to get him to not bother me again. He was agonizingly sore for days, but that SOB keeps coming back.”
Drucker was onto something, from a business standpoint. Shortly thereafter, Varsity House’s newly hired business coach let Riggio and Goodman in on something: Running a gym that only operates between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when school-age athletes come to train, was a bad business model for a multi-thousand square foot facility. Now, 75% of the business’ dollars come in from adult clients, who train consistently year-round rather than seasonally in the way student-athletes do.
Adding parents “is probably the reason we’re still in business, to be honest,” Goodman said. The new facility in Ridgewood is a step further into serving adult clients, as Riggio and Goodman will make them the facility’s primary focus when it opens this summer. The Orangeburg location will continue to focus on training athletes.
Make no mistake: the upcoming growth doesn’t mean the past year was easy for them.
Riggio and his wife closed on their home on March 13, 2020, and Goodman’s wife was in the midst of a complicated pregnancy. By that weekend, everything the men had built together at Varsity House was, as for all other businesses deemed non-essential at the beginning of the pandemic, up in the air.
They each picked up the phone and called one of their members. They repeated that 350 or so times.
They talked to every single one of them.
“Fitness and mental health are very intertwined,” Riggio said. “Fitness can be a major outlet for stress. For Dan and I, we said, ‘What we can do to keep this going?’”
Training went virtual and Varsity House leased $100,000 of equipment out to its members. They engaged them with online events, including a virtual 5K pediatric cancer fundraiser that raised $15,000.
At its lowest point, 82% of their members, ever loyal, were still paying full membership fees to support Varsity House. Most members that had to step away for a time have since come back.
The personal attention Riggio and Goodman give to their clients is part of what keeps them so loyal. The cast of characters—the middle school athletes Goodman brought into Varsity House back in 2009, the women who bailed water out of the old location in 2011—most of them are still there. The stories come up at yearly community barbecues. At least a few of the kids who came to them at age 12 or 13 went on to play professional sports, and they still show up to train with Riggio and Goodman when they can.
“The biggest thing that kept me coming back was how much they pushed me. A coach’s job is to identify one’s talents and be able to push them to the limit that the athlete didn’t know they could reach,” said Andrew Trumbetti, one of the kids Goodman recruited from his little brother’s friend group. Trumbetti went on to play college football and in the National Football League for the Chicago Bears.
“The first day I walked in there, Joe and Dan asked me, ‘what are you trying to accomplish?’ and I said I wanted to play football at Notre Dame. When a 7th grader is setting goals so high, sometimes the reaction is ‘maybe you should start small.’ But they knew how serious I was going in, and they took me under their wing,” Trumbetti said. “Since the first day I walked in there, I never worked out with the kids my age. Dan always pushed me with the higher groups. If I went anywhere else, the trainer would have put me in the group I ‘should’ have been in, but [Riggio and Goodman] would’ve never put me in that group if they didn’t think I was capable of doing it.”
When he was drafted into the NFL, Trumbetti said sticking with Varsity House was a no-brainer. “I had opportunities to train all over the country, but I knew that they, out of anyone I could have gone to, would have given 100% of their efforts toward me. It’s the most important time of your life, training before going pro. If I went to someone else, I might just be another number, but at Varsity House, I was their guy. I knew I’d get the level of attention I needed, and they exceeded my expectations in every way,” Trumbetti said.
Today, Trumbetti is in banking and he lives about an hour from the facility. It’s a bit too far to drive to everyday, so he settles for a chain gym near his house for most of his workouts. He still makes the drive to Varsity House a few times a month for “weekend pumps” with Goodman and his friends. For him, Varsity House is still his ”home away from home,” he said. “Those are the times I really appreciate.”
Steve Rosner, 10-year member of Varsity House Gym and co-founder of sports marketing firm 16W Marketing, said he believes a key ingredient to Varsity House’s success and growth is that co-owners’ overall mantra of being a community-oriented training facility hasn’t changed.
“To remember and still adhere to the reason you might have gotten into something in the first place, and if as you grow your business, your goals and values stay the same, is a challenge … but people root for them, and they send their friends there,” Rosner said. “The best compliment you can give someone is ‘I think these guys are good people. I want them to succeed, and I want to refer people to them.’”