It’s Saturday, at an hour that would be early even by work-day standards. But a crowd of runners has already gathered in front of South Miami’s FootWorks shoe store, stretching their arms into the sky, flexing stiff calves and grape-vining down the sidewalk.
By the time the sun breaks over the trees, the herd of 100 — some practiced marathoners, others first-time runners — is loping toward Coconut Grove.
For almost 40 years, veterans and would-be athletes have turned to the retailer in this cozy village for specialty shoes, running shorts, reflective vests — and inspiration. FootWorks, which started in the 1970s as one of the first specialty running stores in the country, is home to much of Miami’s running community.
And it’s always recruiting new members. Through walk-and-run training programs, its nonprofit arm, TeamFootWorks, motivates more than 400 people a year to get moving.
On this day, about 20 people are following Debbie Diego. Mindful of beginners, she paces the 45-minute run by jogging two minutes and then walking for one. Diego, 54, only began running nine years ago as a way to relieve stress after going through a divorce. For the past seven years, she has been a group leader for TeamFootWorks.
“In life, it’s that balance,” she said. “I think this keeps the balance.”
Running the Business
FootWorks was born more from necessity than design. Laurie Huseby, 64, and her late husband, John “Hans” Huseby, came into the business after moving from Minneapolis to Miami to help Laurie’s father run a few Earth Shoes stores he had opened. A few months after her father died, Earth Shoes went out of business.
Hans was managing the South Miami store. With no hockey rinks for miles, he started running to stay fit.
At the time, in the 1970s, running for sport was just beginning to creep into American mainstream culture. Frank Shorter brought home the gold medal for the 1972 Olympics marathon, the first win for the U.S. since 1908. A growing number of people were looking to improve their fitness: Gabe Kaplan, Telly Savalas and Robert Conrad led their teams to complete athletic feats on Battle of the Network Stars. Aerobic exercise was en vogue.
Most runners then were men, and the sport was competitive. Although the Boston Marathon had existed for more than 70 years, it was during the ’70s and ’80s that finishing a marathon translated into mainstream bragging rights. Women weren’t even allowed to participate until the 1960s.
The sport’s appeal spread, in large part thanks to its accessibility, said Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger. Beginning runners don’t need expensive equipment or a country club membership.
But most need shoes. At the time, the Miami area had no specialty running shoe stores. So in 1976, Hans and Laurie Huseby started one up. FootWorks opened on 5724 Sunset Drive.
The time proved perfect. By the early 1980s, fitness was a status symbol. Jane Fonda had written her Workout Book and Olivia Newton-John, wearing a sweatband and dripping on the single’s cover art, topped the charts by urging people to “get physical.”
A few years later, in 1985, the couple started TeamFootWorks. Business at the store had been good, and Laurie and Hans wanted to give back to the community that had begun calling FootWorks home. Thirty years later, the not-for-profit produces the Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run 5K series and offers fitness education programs and events for a minimal fee. Any money that exceeds costs goes to other local charities.
But in the past decade, business has slipped. Other specialty running stores, big-box stores and giant sporting goods stores have saturated the market. Despite the addition of a South Beach location in 2012, the trend continues in the wrong direction.
“I’m sure that the business is divided amongst all of us,” said Laurie, speaking of the competition. “But I’m sure that the main culprit is the Internet … It’s my gut feeling. And I almost say to myself, how did I not anticipate this happening? Because it’s so easy [to shop online].”
In the past five years, online running-shoe sales have grown from taking up 9 percent of sales to 17, said Nick Rigitano, analyst for the National Sporting Goods Association based in Mount Prospect, Illinois. At the same time, sales for specialty running stores nationally have held relatively steady at about 14 percent of the total shoe market.
To combat the trends, Laurie tries to order as little as she can while keeping the right products in stock. It’s a delicate balance.
Keeping both the store and the fitness program going has gotten harder since Hans died last November. The couple was married for 43 years, and in business together almost as long.
On a mid-summer day, the 1,600-square-foot FootWorks in South Miami had 3,457 pairs of shoes in stock, including the popular Brooks Adrenaline, Asics 2000, Mizuno Wave Inspire and Nike Free. By comparison, the Fit2Run warehouse in Dadeland Mall had about 10,000.
To compete with growing warehouses and the online market’s seemingly infinite supply, smaller stores have to create a reputation of expertise, Rigitano said.
“For specialty stores, it’s really about knowing the product and the customer service,” Rigitano said. “Specialty stores are seen as basically experts.”
All 12 of FootWorks’ retail employees — most store veterans — know how to fine-tune a customer’s fit. They ask about customers’ shoe needs and preferences and put most customers on a treadmill so they can analyze their gait in different pairs of shoes.
While the fit of the shoe matters, the fitness programs also help drive business. The more people are working out, the more people are buying athletic wear.
While the for-profit business and nonprofit are two entirely separate entities, TeamFootWorks’ marathon training programs and Fitness 101, a beginners’ program, have helped maintain FootWorks’ publicity and sales.
“It’s a pretty high caliber of people,” Laurie said of TeamFootWorks’ runners. “You’ve got the best divorce lawyer in town, the doctors, the lawyers.”
But the high-profile client sector hasn’t been able to completely counteract FootWorks’ falling sales numbers, though. Last year, the store sold 12,797 pairs of running shoes. That’s down from 16,903 in 2013 and 19,105 in 2012.
While many of TeamFootWorks’ members — who get a 15 percent discount — buy their gear at FootWorks, some still shop elsewhere.
Recently, a longtime customer didn’t find the color she wanted in a certain shoe. She went to a big-box store, then came back and ran with TeamFootWorks the next morning. Laurie was demoralized.
“People just, they don’t equate [that] with, we might not be here,” Laurie said. “We really might not be here if you guys don’t support us.”
“It’s all about the bottom line, it has to be about the bottom line,” she said. “People who want to be idealistic and think it’s not, that’s just ridiculous — because try paying the bills.”
Fees for the training programs are minimal. The seven-week beginner program starting Sept. 9 meets twice weekly in the evening and costs $79.
On a recent Tuesday evening, about 40 people turned up and checked in to one of the four different pace groups. Eddie Suarez, who has worked for FootWorks since 2007, ran with the 3-to-1 group, running three minutes and walking one.
Suarez ran his first marathon in 2005 in Miami. He had joined the beginner training program the year before.
“You realize you can do anything,” he said between breaths as he ran down Snapper Creek Drive, rounding out Tuesday’s second mile. “You feel so accomplished by putting your mind to it and taking on this big 26.2 [-mile] behemoth of a marathon, by just focusing on ‘this week, I’m going to get to 4 miles’ and slowly chipping away at the big goal.”
Most of TeamFootWorks runners sign up looking to get back in shape or improve their overall health. Almost three-quarters are women, and most are in their 40s — only 15 percent are under 30 or over 60.
They’re part of a national trend. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, 12.9 million women were running or jogging in 2005. Now there are 21.5 million.
They’re competing, as well. In 2005, Harshbarger said, 48 percent of people running in a timed race were women. In 2014, they made up 57 percent of participants. Untimed races, like the Color Run, Relay for Life and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, compound that number.
Groups like Black Girls Run and Girls on the Run promote fitness and community for women and girls. And while many female runners are in to win, others focus on making running fun. The Halloween Half, for instance, encourages runners to come in costume.
But the real “secret ingredient” to training is the long Saturday morning runs, Laurie says. TeamFootWorks sets out coolers of Vitalyte energy drink and water along the route. Toward the end of training, in just a few months, the full run goes 13 miles.
“It feels awesome,” said Nina Gomez, 42, out on this Saturday morning prepping with others aiming for a half or full marathon. She gave up on her first training group, but three kids and 15 years later, she’s back.“I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long to come back. I’m definitely going to run the half this time.”
Running partnerships — like one between Simone Segredo, 44, and Simone Drakes, 32, help them stay the course. Each holds the other accountable for putting in their miles. “There was a small hope that you weren’t coming, so I wouldn’t have to get up,” Segredo joked to Drakes as they set out.
They’ll need the mutual support. By the end of training, they’ll be starting out at 4 a.m. for a full 13-mile lope.
The regimen helps change lives in ways small and significant. Says Laurie, “It’s amazing what it’s done to people. We’re not just talking about losing weight — we’re talking about becoming a happier person. This one girl that I run with, she said her husband has just come out of his shell. All these things happen once you just get a little confidence.”
On those early mornings, before the sun comes up, runners sometimes find themselves jogging around bar-hoppers still enjoying their Friday night. Diego said she can never decide who the crazy ones are — those stumbling home to bed, or the neon-clad mass already awake, motivated and charging down the sidewalk.
Mixing profits with purpose
Socially minded businesses aren’t entirely new. Goodwill Industries, built around the mission to train and find jobs for people with disabilities, was founded in 1902. But the practice has become more commonplace with a generation that seeks to marry purpose with profits and the rise of social entrepreneurship champions like Ashoka.
Here are a few less-known South Florida companies with social and business missions.
ARC Broward Electronic Recycling Services
ARC Broward Electronic Recycling Services
What they do: A division of ARC Broward that reduces electronic waste while providing job training opportunities for adults with disabilities.
Location: Fort Lauderdale, Sunrise
Grace & Paul
What they do: Trading food company specializing in fair trade coffee, chocolate and tea. The company aims to reduce poverty among small scale farmers.
Location: Pembroke Pines
What they do: Staffing agency that combines job placement with financial education to set employees on a reliable path.
Number of employees: 4
Founded: 1976 by Laurie and Hans Huseby
Business: Sells a wide range of running and athletic shoes and gear; top sellers include Brooks Adrenaline, Asics 2000, Mizuno Wave Inspire and Nike Free.
Located: 5724 Sunset Drive, South Miami (original location); 1935 West Avenue, Miami Beach (opened in 2012)
Social mission: Miami’s unofficial “home” for runners encourages physical fitness through not-for-profit TeamFootWorks, which offers running and walking training programs and produces the Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run 5K series.
Information: footworksmiami.com; teamfootworks.org