Sarah Tuttle wanted to know why instructors were leaving and classes were disappearing from the schedule at the trendy Pop Physique fitness studio she once frequented in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood.
“I hope everything’s okay,” Tuttle wrote in a Dec. 10, 2018, email to the barre studio.
Staff assured her everything was fine — new instructors were being trained and more fitness classes would be added soon. So she bought a pack of 21 classes for $185.
A few weeks later, the studio closed without notice.
Tuttle is one of about a dozen women who told BuzzFeed News that they purchased packages of classes ranging from $45 to $200 shortly before Pop Physique suddenly shut down studios in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City, but were unable to get refunds.
“It's just the principle of it,” said the 31-year-old. “I feel like they should pay for that because it’s their fault."
Attempts to get their money back over the last two years have been drawn out, unanswered, or rejected by the fitness studio chain, which has shrunk from around 20 locations across the US in 2016 to just four studios today — one of which Pop Physique recently agreed to vacate.
Most women said they only learned that their studio had shuttered when they checked the class schedule and found it empty. And while many said they felt blindsided by the closures, court records and interviews with former employees suggest Pop Physique’s owners knew for months that they would have to shut down several locations over legal and financial troubles.
Over the last few years, the company has struggled to compensate staff and stopped paying rent at multiple locations, records and interviews show. Pop Physique currently owes more than $1 million in court judgments to former landlords and a loan company, according to court records.
“They're probably not refunding people because they just don't have the money,” a former employee told BuzzFeed News. “I’m shocked it still exists at all.”
Pop Physique, the fitness and barre workout studio, was founded by former professional dancer Jennifer Williams and her husband, Deric Williams, in Los Angeles in 2008. Jennifer Williams told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview earlier this month that she wanted to create a safe space for women to “make them feel stronger and make them feel confident in their bodies,” and was drawn to the exercise techniques developed by Lotte Berk, whose method has served as the basis for many barre franchises.
Barre classes, like Pop Physique, are full-body workouts that incorporate elements of ballet and low-impact, high-intensity exercises to strengthen and tone muscles. The fitness classes have exploded in popularity in the last decade, attracting a clientele of mostly women.
With all the options out there, former clients and instructors said they favored Pop Physique because of its more affordable prices and unique branding.
The chain is known for its eye-popping billboards and building exteriors plastered with images of lounging women in leotards and sculpted backsides in bright-colored bikini bottoms. Sandwich board signs with the words “Nice Butt” welcome customers inside. The studio’s stylish interiors feature wallpapers with cherries and fishnets.
“The workout itself was really, really great,” said Tuttle. “I’ve taken lots of barre classes at other studios, like Pure Barre, and I would say I prefer Pop Physique. I like the hardwood floors, the music — it was a cute brand.”
After finding success with their first studio in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, the Williamses decided to expand, opening additional studios on their own and through partnerships with teachers and licensees, who independently operated Pop Physique locations in Southern California, Florida, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Toronto.
Today just the Silver Lake studio, two locations in New York City, and a franchise in San Marino, California, remain open.
Jennifer Williams blamed the bulk of the business’s troubles on a lawsuit filed in 2016 by the landlord for a Pasadena studio she and her husband had opened, and unexpected construction that kept Pop Physique out of its flagship New York City studio for nearly a year.
“It’s a very sort of sad tale of capitalism extremes,” the cofounder and creator told BuzzFeed News. “If I have a company and I’m sued, then I have to pay for it no matter if I'm right or wrong — there's no assistance there. So one could spend all of your money fighting something that is principally wrong, which is what happened to us.”
Records and interviews show Pop Physique sold class packages to customers at locations that were in the process of eviction and, in some cases, sold packages the day before or even after studios shut down.
In San Francisco, the property owner for the Russian Hill studio filed an unlawful-detainer complaint against Pop Physique on Nov. 30, 2018, to evict the business after it failed to pay rent and other charges for three months.
A former instructor told BuzzFeed News that three past-due-rent letters were delivered to the studio during that time.
“When we sent it to Jen she ... told us not to worry,” she said. “‘Everything’s taken care of’; ‘Rent’s being paid’; ‘We’re not getting evicted.’”
Tuttle ultimately purchased her last package of classes for the studio around Jan. 3 — more than a month after the landlord sued Pop Physique. By Jan. 23, Pop Physique was gone, according to the court records.
Tuttle repeatedly asked for a refund through mid-March, to no avail. Now, more than three months after the studio’s closure, she and other clients may be able to use their outstanding class packages at another barre studio.
In response to BuzzFeed News’ inquiry, Williams said another fitness studio in San Francisco, Pure Barre, has agreed to honor outstanding class packages purchased by clients at the former Pop Physique location in Russian Hill.
But in order to participate in the deal, clients need to pay a $50 enrollment fee and commit to a minimum of two months at Pure Barre, according to an email announcing the offer.
Tuttle said she’d still prefer to have her money refunded.
“Had I known the location was closing, I never would have purchased a package,” said another former client who bought 10 classes for $180 at the Upper East Side studio in New York City days before it closed in November.
The client, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News she purchased the package after receiving an email from Pop Physique promoting the deal.
“I’m not kidding you. Two days later or even a day later I got an email, ‘Hey, this location is closing,” she said. “Literally, the transaction hadn’t even finished being processed.”
While the Upper East Side customer eventually managed to get a refund from her credit card company, most who spoke with BuzzFeed News sought refunds for up to $185 but never saw their money again.
Many women said that instead of fulfilling their refund requests, Pop Physique offered to transfer their classes to another location, often far from where they lived or worked — a tough sell for most Angelenos and New Yorkers.
Lyndsay Phillips tried to make it work.
After the Studio City studio she attended for more than four years closed in October 2017, Phillips drove across town to Silver Lake.
“It was like a two-hour ordeal to take a 55-minute class,” the 39-year-old woman told BuzzFeed News. “I was barely making it on time. I was so frustrated — I was like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”
She asked for a refund for the 10 classes left in her account and was told it would be taken care of.
“One of the receptionists actually looked at me dead in the eye — she was like, ‘OK, we took care of it. It’s been refunded to your card,’ but it was just a lie,” Phillips said.
Amber Ike purchased a five-class pack for $45 to use at the Westside Los Angeles location on May 16, 2018 — only to find out the studio had been closed for weeks.
“As soon as I bought the package, I immediately got on the app and went to try to book a class for that week,” Ike told BuzzFeed News. “There weren’t any classes available.”
Court records show that Pop Physique failed to pay rent, late fees, and interest for the Westside space for eight months, prompting the property owner to file an unlawful-detainer complaint in February 2018. By mid-April, the business had vacated the premises, emails show.
“Why was I able to buy this package when my location had closed?” the 29-year-old Culver City resident asked. “They apologized and said that they could move my passes to a different location, and I said it’s a little inconvenient, but sure. I don’t want these to go to waste.”
Pop Physique staff transferred Ike’s package to a studio in LA’s Larchmont neighborhood, but when she tried to take a class there a few months later, she learned that location had also closed its doors.
For months Ike asked for a refund, but staff stopped responding to her emails.
Others had a similar experience.
“I felt like they would send out a promotion, people would buy them, and then they would close the studio,” said 33-year-old Los Angeles resident Susan Merwin, who frequented the Studio City and Westside locations.
When asked about clients not receiving refunds, Williams said she did not know why their requests had not been honored. Many studios were independently operated, she stressed, adding that she and her husband sold the company-owned locations before they closed as a result of the Pasadena lawsuit.
She declined to provide information about which locations the Williamses owned, in whole or in part, and when and to whom they sold the studios.
“It's not my decision and it’s not my ... I can't pay them out of my personal money when I don't own that location, but it’s never what Pop Physique has stood for and it’s not what I would do,” she said. “I do know that many refunds have been done.”
In a follow-up email, Williams said clients have always had the ability to use their classes at another location.
“Many had discounted packages that expired before a studio closed and find themselves confused regarding thinking they are due a refund,” she wrote.
Women who worked at Pop Physique studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco said they weren’t surprised that clients haven’t been able to get their money back.
Four former instructors and one front-desk employee, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Williams struggled to pay them on time and sometimes resorted to making payroll through app platforms like Venmo or Zelle.
She would give employees excuses for late paychecks, saying they were lost in the mail or were delayed because of a holiday, according to one former instructor.
“It was just very, very fishy,” said the employee, who taught at the Russian Hill studio in San Francisco for almost two years.
The instructor, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid any backlash from the owners, told BuzzFeed News she once refused to teach after her paycheck was late for the third pay period in a row. She quit shortly thereafter.
Another former employee who worked at the front desk at multiple studios in Los Angeles in 2017 said she occasionally had to borrow money from her parents to make ends meet because of the late paychecks.
“I’m a millennial living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I can’t wait.”
But Williams told BuzzFeed News that all employees who worked at studios she owned were paid appropriately.
“To our knowledge, all employees were compensated in a timely fashion in good faith and in accordance with the law,” she said.
Now the fate of Pop Physique's studio in New York City's NoMad neighborhood is up in the air after the company agreed to vacate the space by April 30, according to court records filed in March.
Williams said they were in negotiations “to keep the studio remaining and operating in its current format,” adding that “the court record has nothing to do with the continuance other than the liability and our names remaining on the lease.”
According to Pop Physique's website, classes were canceled Wednesday through Sunday at the studio. In an email to staff Friday, Pop Physique said it would need to keep the NoMad location closed "for a short period of time" while new owners sign a lease with the landlord.
"We expect to be open again within two weeks," the email said.
Meanwhile, the founders are focused on growing the business again.
Last year the Williamses filed documents to officially make Pop Physique a franchise company and have since been flooding clients’ inboxes with offers to open studios in more than 30 states.
Williams, who said she doesn’t own any of the studios that remain open, occasionally teaches at the Silver Lake studio and is listed as president of the new franchise company in documents filed with the state of California as recently as January. She said that new franchisees have already signed agreements to open studios in neighborhoods where Pop Physique locations had previously operated and that expired packages from former clients would be honored at the new studios.
Although Pop Physique wasn’t registered to sell or offer franchises in California until 2018, the Williamses began licensing the brand and workouts in 2011, according to state business records and three women who used to own studios in the Los Angeles area. Since then, all but one of the original locations that were operated by licensees or partners have closed.
A former operator of two Pop Physique studios in Southern California who did not want to be named called the plans to open new franchise locations “scary,” but hoped the founders had learned from their past mistakes.
“I hope these poor people who are getting involved know what they’re doing,” she said. “Maybe they’ve changed — maybe they're in so much financial trouble that they have to change, and that would be a good thing.” ●