Elise Fiechtner chose downtown Ada for a business location due to its tight-knit sense of community and walkability. Photo by Michael Buck
Elise Fiechtner moved to Ada during its nascent renewal with one big goal: creating a community within a community through fitness.
Fiechtner earned a B.A. in education from Michigan State University in 2008 during the Great Recession and was forced to leave the state to find a teaching job.
She taught middle school in Mountain View, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, for three years. Then, when she and her husband Ben relocated to the Chicago area in 2010 for his job, she transitioned to working as a data and instructional technology coach — helping teachers and students in the Oak Park Elementary School District.
While living in Chicago, she joined a fitness studio that became her “happy place” and schooled her in the ways of health and wellness, Fiechtner said.
She gave birth to her daughter, Reese, and took a six-month maternity leave by stacking paid time off with school holidays. During that period, she and her husband decided to move back to Michigan.
Her passion for fitness planted the seed of an idea: What if she could open a studio in her home state? In conversations with the owner of the Chicago studio where she was a member, she learned there was someone she ought to meet who could make that dream a reality.
Erin Paruszewski is founder and CEO of Alkalign Studios, based in Menlo Park, California, not far from where Fiechtner used to live during her teaching days. Paruszewski owns two studios and was helping launch the concept’s first franchise in Irvine when Fiechtner was introduced to her.
Fiechtner and her husband set their sights on Ada as their new home at a time when the suburb was in the early stages of its Envision Ada redevelopment.
The couple saw the downtown didn’t have anything similar to Alkalign, so Fiechtner began talks with Paruszewski and Lizzie Hammerman, director of innovation and franchise development for Alkalign, about how she could franchise in Ada.
“Everything they stand for in terms of moving the body and nutritious movement overall, as well as just general wellness, I totally believed in, so I thought, ‘OK, well, this is a brand that I feel really passionate about. And their mission I feel really passionate about. I think it could work in Ada,’” Fiechtner said.
At the top of Fiechtner’s mind was the fact Ada is a close-knit community, and one of the primary hallmarks of the Alkalign model is personal connection.
She also had heard the closer people live to their gym, the more likely they are to show up on a regular basis. A 2017 Wall Street Journal article reported those who live a median distance of 3.7 miles from their gym work out five or more times a month, whereas those who live a median distance of 5.1 miles do so only once per month.
With that in mind, Fiechtner felt the geographically and socially tight community offered a sweet spot for Alkalign.
The building in which she opened her studio in early 2017, at 523 Ada Drive SE, Suite 101, was the first completed structure in the Ada Village downtown redevelopment.
“We got in at a great time,” Fiechtner said. “It was interesting because we were in the last rounds of franchise discussions with Erin in California, and they were really pushing me to sign, and we didn’t have a lease yet. It got to the point where I was so focused on being in Ada because I knew I wanted to be in a place where it was walkable and livable and ‘shoppable’ and ‘eatable’ and all that stuff. And I knew that this was moving in that direction and all the exciting stuff that was going to happen. So, it was not until we knew we had this spot that we then made the jump.
“It was not that this couldn’t be successful somewhere else, but I think my vision for this place was that it was part of the Ada community.”
Alkalign’s slogan is “functional fitness for life.” The “align” part of its name refers to putting participants in proper and safe body positions, from head to toe, before they move.
Fiechtner described Alkalign classes — which can be purchased a la carte, in bundles or by membership — as having “the best blend of core strength, yoga, Pilates, barre and mobility training with cardio elements.”
According to alkalignstudios.com, each class is built upon the “seven core functional movements you make in your everyday life”: squat, lunge, push, pull, rotate, hinge and gait/walk.
Participants split their time between three types of workouts: strength, cardio and mobility.
All the Alkalign instructors, Fiechtner said, have to complete an in-depth training of about 200 hours that teaches them correct body positioning, anatomical movements/adjustments and cardio.
“Even our cardio class that’s a high-intensity interval class is still really safe,” she said. “We’re never going to jump; we’re never going to put strain and stress on joints so that we hopefully reduce injury over time. But you’re still getting that benefit of big heart rate change that burns calories and all the things that come out of a good cardio workout. So, it’s sustainable in that sense.”
Fiechtner said it was “scary” stepping out of the classroom to become a franchise owner. She had always worked collaboratively and enjoyed peer relationships, and suddenly as an entrepreneur, she felt like she was an island.
“There wasn’t another one of me. I was it,” she said.
Even though she doesn’t have a co-owner or peer at her same level, Fiechtner said she has developed a support network.
Her husband, who is area vice president, consumer vertical at Salesforce, has provided a sounding board and advice on the sales side of business.
As a member of the Ada Business Association, Fiechtner has made connections that have helped her navigate leadership dynamics, marketing, technology and other hurdles as she runs her studio.
She also relies on the studio’s manager, Tammy DeYoung-Gibbs, as well as Marlene Thompson, who is both an instructor at Alkalign Ada and the corporate communications director for all of Alkalign.
She also draws support from Paruszewski and Hammerman, as well as from Kate Biber, franchisee of the Irvine location.
Less than five months ago, Fiechtner had her second daughter, Quinn, and slowly has been ramping back up with teaching classes and running the business.
She estimated she teaches four to eight of the 20 or so classes currently on the studio’s roster.
As a mom, Fiechtner said she felt it was important to offer child care, so she has two employees who help run playrooms where moms can drop off their children during their workouts.
Alkalign Ada also has five instructors and three front desk staff, in addition to the manager and owner.
Fiechtner said she is learning every day about the challenges of running a business, but it’s worth it to her.
“I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve brought this unique community together in Ada,” she said. “I’ll be here, and I’ll look around the room and see people a) doing something really good for their bodies and b) connecting with each other, meeting new people, connecting with me.
“When I had Quinn, the outpouring of love and support and all that was amazing. It wasn’t about me; it was about the community. … I don’t know that it’s a ‘business achievement,’ but I’m most proud of the community that we’ve built here.”