Gym in old Browns Shoe store location

Owner Marcel Walker stands in one of several workout rooms in his soon-to-open fitness studio at the old Brown's Shoe Fit Co. location on Seventh Street in Hanford.

Gary Feinstein The Sentinel

HANFORD – Downtown Hanford businessman Marcel Walker, the owner of S.W.E.A.T. Unlimited, is surprised by how far and how fast he’s come.

The fitness studio that began in 2012 in a cramped space in the Artesia Building is on the verge of expanding next month into the former Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. store at 100 W. Seventh St.

Once Walker has the new location up and running, he’ll have a total of 8,000 square feet of workout space – 4,000 in his group class studio in the former Country Hutch facility at 215 W. Lacey Blvd. and another 4,000 in the former Brown’s location, which will cater to clients who want a more intensive, one-on-one program with individual trainers.

It’s a far cry from the 1,000 square foot space of his original digs.

Back then, he had about 100 clients. Now he’s up to nearly 425.

Back then, it was just Walker. Now he’s got seven personal trainers working for him at S.W.E.A.T.

“We’re expanding because people like more attentive fitness and one-on-one training,” he said. “There’s a mindset that goes with that.”

Walker has found a niche market that isn’t so niche: 90 percent of his clients are women who want to keep up their appearance and are willing to pay for personalized training and advice.

“I pretty much had a life change, that’s what it was,” said client Paula Sozhino, who has been training with Walker for three years.

Like many of Walker’s customers, Sozhino said she tried the big corporate gym thing and it didn’t work.

“I got too busy,” she said. “I didn’t go.”

With Walker, she made the connection.

And not only with Walker.

Sozhino said she bonded with and became friends with the other women, forming a kind of wellness community centered on healthy eating and regular fitness.

Experts say that building a sense of community is one of the keys to converting to a fitness-oriented lifestyle.

“We have results,” she said.

Hanford resident Megan Willhite doesn’t even live in Hanford anymore (she moved to El Centro), but she still trains with Walker online.

Walker runs training sessions remotely via Skype.

“Knowing that there’s somebody to be accountable to, I think that’s it,” Willhite said. “He keeps you motivated by asking questions.”

“I’m actually super proud of him,” Willhite said of Walker. “I’m just super ecstatic for him.”

Walker’s impending expansion will fill the hole left when Brown’s closed up shop earlier this year after 103 years in downtown Hanford.

“Anything opening a door on Seventh Street is good,” said Mayor Justin Mendes. “If he’s expanding, that means he’s getting more business, and that’s good for everybody.”

“I loved shopping at Brown’s, so I really miss them,” said newly elected City Councilwoman Sue Sorensen. “I guess my initial thinking would be that [Walker’s expansion] will bring foot traffic to downtown. For other businesses to be successful, we need foot traffic.”

For his part, Walker said that downtown space was cheaper and more available than going into one of Hanford’s shopping centers.

But there was more to it than that: He liked the downtown vibe.

“I wanted to kind of help with the atmosphere downtown,” Walker said. “I kind of like the downtown feel.”

Mendes and Sorensen said they hope Walker’s expansion, combined with yoga studios and other workout places that are also downtown, will be enough to get some healthful eating options to come downtown.

It’s a wish shared by longtime S.W.E.A.T. client and Hanford resident Lindsey Brasil.

“I’d love to see a place where you could get nice salads, healthy choices,” Brasil said. “I work downtown, and you can’t get anything other than, for example, the hot dog stand.”

Brasil works at Salon Cotoure in the Old Courthouse.

“All of us at the salon complain that there’s no place to eat that’s good for you,” she said.

Walker said that nutritional advice and meal-planning has become a more and more important part of his program.

He’s launched a nutrition class. He also puts out a weekly nutrition/eating newsletter.

“You start learning different recipes, different meals,” he said. “You tell them, ‘Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring.’ ”

Walker has figured out a way to keep it interesting.

Who knows? In another four years, he might be expanding yet again into another vacant downtown slot.

“I always knew there was potential, I just didn’t know how quickly it was going to come,” Walker said. “That fuels me to do more, to push more.”

The reporter can be reached at snidever@hanfordsentinel.com or 583-2432. 

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