After 40 years in St. Paul, the SweatShop is rolling up the workout mats and closing for good

Before turning off the lights and locking the doors for the last time Saturday, SweatShop Health Club owner Gayle Winegar intends to say goodbye to her clients in much the same she’s run the St. Paul fitness studio for more than 40 years.

“I’ve had a ritual for much of that time,” she said. “I plan to give everyone a kiss and a hug before they leave. We want people to feel appreciated.”

Longtime members and instructors say it’s Winegar who should feel appreciated when the studio near the corner of Snelling and Selby avenues goes dark after a handful of final classes. She created a space where thousands of people, mostly women, could find strength, care and community in Pilates, yoga and aerobics classes.

“It’s such a great place, and it’s just so important to so many of us,” said Connie Starns, who started attending classes at SweatShop 37 years ago. “Those were the days when it was very [high impact] Jane Fonda-ish. It’s more yoga and Pilates now. But what hasn’t changed has been its focus on the importance of health. And the importance of building a community.”

Starns remembers taking a restorative yoga class at the SweatShop in 2016-17 as she was undergoing cancer treatment.

“And Gayle was there, reaching out, asking, ‘How are you doing?’ “

Over 30 years, Sandra Swami saw her role at the SweatShop evolve from trainer to fitness director to instructor trainer and, finally, healer. Swami said her kids grew up at the SweatShop — and in fact, she said, she grew up at the SweatShop. Now a wellness coach with her own business, Swami said Winegar was rare in that she fostered an atmosphere of empowerment and teamwork.

“The culture there, because of Gayle’s vision and Gayle’s attitude, was one of inventiveness and collaboration and a positive energy towards anything new,” Swami said. “You could try things. … Other places weren’t like that.”

Winegar could see the possibilities in people and coached them to help bring out their best, Swami said.

“I feel like I always have a friend, a confidant and a sounding board,” she said of her former boss.

Begun in Minneapolis’ Loring Park neighborhood in 1982, the SweatShop quickly grew to six locations, including Rochester. In 1991, on the same day as the Halloween Blizzard, Winegar bought the building at Snelling and Selby and consolidated the business into that single site.

In addition to helping thousands of members make and meet fitness goals, Winegar said the SweatShop has served as a training ground. More than 1,800 group fitness instructors, Pilates instructors and personal trainers learned their craft there.

On a recent afternoon, Winegar pointed to a studio wall covered with portraits of more than a dozen of the club’s current trainers and teachers. She’s proud to have helped launch so many careers, she said.

“And I’m proud that we made it through some challenging times, like 9/11 and the pandemic,” Winegar said.

But it’s time, she said, to exit small business ownership and its late nights and bottom-line worries. She sold the building in August and said she’s looking forward to no longer sweating post-pandemic staffing challenges.

However, she added, “I’m not the retiring type.”

Winegar plans to work as a consultant with longtime friend and Life Time Fitness founder Bahram Akradi, Winegar said. She extolled Akradi’s plans to give the SweatShop’s members and trainers the opportunity to continue at Life Time in a new, smaller Pilates community he’s launching in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.

In addition, Winegar said she is working with the Cultural Wellness Center in Minneapolis to develop a Pilates and wellness studio at the Midtown Global Market and to forge a network of Pilates trainers from culturally diverse communities. She will also work with three women-owned fitness businesses.

“It’s the next chapter of my contribution to wellness and fitness,” Winegar said of her post-SweatShop plans.

Starns, who was a young mother when she started at the SweatShop’s Grand Avenue location years ago, said she’s not yet sure what to do now. Winegar, she said, made everyone feel like they mattered.

“We’ve had discussions in classes asking, ‘Where are you going to go?’ ” Starns said. “But people want to stay together. I’ve had chances to go to other clubs over the years, but I kept going to the SweatShop because those are my people.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *