Count Chris Heeb and Karen Makar are the latest suburban natives who have cast their lot onto the West Side.
The husband-and-wife team earlier this month opened CrossFit Nickel City in a long-vacant storefront at Virginia and 10th streets, inside a 2,700-square-foot space that was once a bar and, before that, an Hispanic social club.
“We think it’s an excellent opportunity, not just for us but to give back to a community that we love,” Makar told me earlier this week, during an interview for today's What are you Eating? piece for WNY Refresh. (See one of Makar’s recipes at the end of this blog.)
“Health and fitness has always been something we’re both really passionate about,” Makar said, “Chris in practice and personally, because it’s something I enjoy.”
The club has drawn a few clients from the neighborhood, but mostly CrossFit enthusiasts who once worked out at the Downtown BAC, as well as BAC CrossFit Extreme on Union Road in Cheektowaga.
LA Fitness discontinued the downtown CrossFit program after it bought the BAC co-ed clubs late last year. As part of the sale agreement, the BAC agreed to close down all of its co-ed clubs by February 2015, and accomplished that when it closed CrossFit Extreme, said Jon Huber, who was with the BAC for eight years before landing at CrossFit Nickel City this month.
“The people from downtown bounced with me out to Cheektowaga and now they’re coming back downtown,” Huber said. “A lot of those people lived or worked downtown.”
Nickel City clients now making their way to the West Side for fitness include home renovators, doctors and lawyers.
“I’ve moved most of my personal training clients into CrossFit,” Huber said. “It was more economical for them. You can have me every day for four or five days a week, or you can have once a week for the same price.”
The gym once played home to the Cosmopolitan tavern, which closed more than a decade ago. Before that, it was a social club that included boxing lessons, neighbors have told Heeb and Makar.
Today, the cinder-block walls have a fresh coat of green and white paint. The CrossFit area contains poles, PVC pipe, free weights and kettlebells. The floor is part rubberized, part cushioned artificial turf. Olympic rings hang from the ceiling above the pull-up rigs.
“The gym space is open because every exercise routine is a little different and people will be moving around,” said Makar, who hold an MBA from Canisius College.
A room for massage and physical therapy, as well as small locker rooms, are in the back.
For more about the club, and rates, visit crossfitnickelcity.com.
The owner couple – both 30 and West Seneca natives who now live in Depew – said the nearest CrossFit club is in Tonawanda.
“CrossFit helps get people motivated and it helps get people fit, which is why it’s been exploding,” Heeb said. “For one hour, it’s an all-out effort. It’s also a community.”
CrossFit Nickel City differs from other CrossFit centers in the region, including CrossFit 716 in North Tonawanda, where husband-and-wife owners Dennis and Jennifer Lesniak and some other members train to compete in the CrossFit games. Jennifer Lesniak and James Wosniak, a trainer there, both have fared well in regional competition. Read more about that gym here.
“We’re more interested in having everyone feel good and move well,” Makar said. “We want to push ourselves and do the best we can, but we’re not here to win championships.”
One thing both gyms have in common is that they look to offer maintenance and rehab services with their fitness training.
The Lesniaks run their chiropractic and nutrition business along with the gym at 716 CrossFit.
Heeb and Makar lease space from building owner Robert Karp, who does CrossFit. They in turn lease space to a massage therapist and have brought physical therapist Chris Nentarz into CrossFit Nickel City as a part-owner. Physical therapist Walter Brown also will see patients at the gym, Makar said.
“This way, you’re not working with a trainer who doesn’t know what your physical therapist is telling you or maybe has a different set of beliefs as your physical therapist,” she said. “You can streamline your goals.”
As for the name, “We wanted to be something that indicates Buffalo,” Makar said, “and we thought ‘Nickel City’ sounded very classic,” like the exercise form.
They see themselves as a holistic gym where trainers start at the right level for the individual client.
“We want to take care of good movement patterns first, then we add weight and intensity,” said Heeb, who holds a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness from SUNY Buffalo State. “We’re all about taking care of members, not only their physical health but their mental health. Some people want stress relief. A mindfulness and recovery program is a huge, huge, huge part of exercise and nobody understands that, nobody does that...
“Some people will brag about how sore they are. Soreness is good – it’s breaking down muscle to build it up stronger – but there is a point instead of becoming healthful where you take a step back. We want to limit bad experiences and have positive efforts.”
The exercises are functional, relating to daily life.
“We’re building your go muscles, not your show muscles,” Makar said. “It’s relating to your daily life, whether it’s carrying your groceries to your car, picking up your baby. As long as you live, you want to be able to sit on the floor and stand up. A lot of people can’t do that.”
Heeb was fitness director of the Southtowns YMCA fro 2007-09 and for a year after that helped set up Snap Fitness in Derby. Then he set out for Phoenix, Ariz. and went into the personal training business for several months while his wife stayed in Western New York.
In the end, they decided they’d both rather be in Buffalo.
Makar is excited to frequent the Winter Market at Horsefeather’s more often when it opens in a few weeks, now that she’s so close.
One of their gym members owns a farm and she hopes next year that the gym might be a CSA drop-off spot.
The couple hopes to mix nutrition with fitness, looking at stress management and yoga/meditation contacts, as well.
“If people go home and work out for an hour and then go home and eat terribly,” Makar said, “and sit at their desk all day, they’re stressed out and don’t get enough sleep, even though they had a great workout, they have not done their jobs. It’s so easy to do that these days.
“We’ve got a lot of plans to help people outside that extra hour when they’re not in the gym.”
As for the new surroundings, they’re thrilled.
“Everybody’s been really friendly, helpful,” Makar said. “Some of our neighbors have come in and worked out already. They’re pleased to see something popping up here that will help the neighborhood.”
Below is one of Makar’s recipes:
Roasted delicata squash and onions with kale
- 3 delicata squash
- 4 small red onions
- 1 bunch kale
- Olive oil or coconut oil
- Salt and pepper
- Delicata squash is easy to prepare as the skin is edible once it is cooked. Wash the squash and cut them lengthwise, then scrape out the seeds. Cut each half into moon-shaped pieces, roughly ½-inch thick. peel the onions and quarter them. Toss the squash and onion pieces in the oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Arrange them on a metal pan and roast them in the oven at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes, flipping once halfway through.
- With about 10 minutes left, sauté the kale with some oil in a pan on the stove until it begins to slightly wilt.
- Toss the squash, onions, and peppers together and drizzle with honey.
This dish is very versatile. It is a perfect side or could even be a full meal if you added quinoa or added a protein. Leftovers can even be warmed up for breakfast and served with an egg on top!