Staying physically fit takes hard work and discipline and running a fitness center takes the same effort.
Pete Berry and his wife, Amy, have managed to defy the odds with the two businesses they have owned in Clarksdale for nearly 40 years. Bear’s Fitness Center has been open since 1981, is still in Westgate Shopping Center on Lee Drive and will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.
Bear’s Deli, in the same location, opened a few years later with the mission of providing the community healthy food served in a friendly atmosphere.
Coahoma County residents took notice of the business’ longtime service to the community winning several Press Register Readers Choice awards this year. Berry tied for the favorite local business owner, won the favorite place to work and Bear’s Fitness Center also won the favorite fitness training award.
“Fitness centers, restaurants and bars are the three businesses that open and close the quickest,” Berry said. “We’ve been in business creeping up on 40 years and, with the deli, probably about 35 years. We’ve been doing both a long time. To do that, especially in a small environment here where your customer base isn’t like Memphis or someplace large like that, you have to keep innovating and adding new things.”
Berry recalled winning all three of those awards at some point, but never at one time.
“We appreciate the customer loyalty that we have,” Berry said. “That’s very nice. It’s always nice to be recognized by people in the community.”
The fitness center made several changes this year, including hiring personal trainer Samuel Marshall, who, according to Berry, brings many people from the younger generation to the gym. The gym recently implemented a keyless entry and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Two new treadmills were added with more computer graphics that stimulate walking around a track or out on a nature trail.
Berry said he plans to purchase more new treadmills and a rowing machine that will benefit gym members who started crossfit training at night.
“You sit and you pull it into you,” said Berry explaining the rowing machine. “It’s a cardio machine that uses more upper body and a little bit of legs, but it’s not like a bicycle or treadmill.”
The walking track, a longtime part of Bear’s Fitness Center, is utilized more than any other piece of equipment.
“That’s the type of cardio that anybody can do and it gives you a little bit more resistance than just a typical treadmill,” Berry said.
Berry said the walking track helps bring senior citizens into the fitness center.
“A regular treadmill you have a higher chance to slip and fall on it,” he said. “With the walking track, since it’s not moving and has a level surface, it’s a lot better than walking outside.”
The menu at Bear’s Deli changes throughout the year. Soups are served during the winter months and more salads are available in the springtime.
Berry said the chicken salad plate with two scoops of chicken salad, fruit and a frozen fruit cup is the most popular item on the menu. The second most popular item is the “chicken salad plate one-and-one” that serves one scoop of chicken salad and another scoop of pimento.
Being a local business helps Berry provide more personal service to customers.
“You’re more tuned into your community -- what’s going on with the community,” he explained. “If somebody orders something from us in the deli and it’s not correct, whether it’s our fault or not, we’re going to make it right. You’re probably not going to get that at a fast food chain.”
That same service applies to the fitness center.
“Because we’ve been in business so long and the variety of knowledge I have in this business, we’re able to do our own maintenance and upkeep on the equipment and add more equipment,” Berry said.
When someone becomes a gym member, the process begins with filling out an analysis card. On the questionnaire, members tell what they can and cannot do and what they are trying to accomplish.
He puts together individual programs with different stages.
“Forty years of experience, you train a lot of people in that time,” Berry said. “We’re training peoples’ children’s, children. Some of them probably grandchildren – three generations, 40 years.”
Another advantage of being a local business for Berry is he is able to make his own decisions.
“We’re not asking anybody else,” he said. “We’re the owners. We can make a decision on the spot where somebody else may have to go to upper management to do it. Also, whatever profits that the business makes stays in the community.”
Every business has its ups and downs and adversity.
Bear’s Fitness Center was forced to temporarily close due to Gov. Tate Reeves’ stay-at-home order in the early part of April. Reeves changed it to a “safer-at-home order” on Friday, but the fitness center was not allowed to re-open as it is not considered an essential business.
Bear’s Deli was also closed, but recently reopened with curbside service.
“It was important to reopen for them and for us,” Berry said. “The reason that we opened the deli in the first place was so we can have a healthy place to eat. We wanted to continue that trend because nutrition is 60 percent of your health. Everybody needs to fuel their body healthily. We’re looking forward to opening the gym back up the same way to serve the community. Everybody needs to be doing something to take care of their heath.”
Marshall put together home training videos he and Berry shared on the Bear’s Fitness Center Facebook page and their own personal pages. The videos show body weight exercises and how to do them safely without getting injured.
Even with the videos, Berry believes fitness centers should be considered an essential business and not be forced to close during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he would make sure sanitation was a little bit healthier, have hand sanitizer, wash the machines more frequently and have social distancing policies.
“One thing you’ll notice, the healthier people are, the better they are at fighting off this virus,” Berry said.
Berry said fitness centers help people deal with stress, improve their immune system and successfully deal with health challenges.
He told a story about a friend of his from Memphis who sells used gym equipment. He helped his friend advertise on Facebook when Bear’s Fitness Center was forced to temporarily close.
“He was overwhelmed,” Berry said. “I mean within the first week, we had 100 people a day trying to build their own gyms. Many of those people said they would not go back to a fitness center. That’s disturbing for an owner of a fitness center, but it lets you know how important people think their health is and to have a place to exercise.”
In a small community such as Coahoma County, Berry said it takes each customer to keep a gym open. He also said, when gym members switch to home equipment, they are less likely to stick with the program.
“They use it for a week or two and then they get distracted. It’s easy to get distracted,” Berry said. “If you set your time up and you say, ‘Every day at 5:30, I’m going to the gym,’ you will not be distracted.”
The population of Coahoma County has declined and Bear’s Fitness Center lost customers in the process, but times have changed.
“People are also a lot more into fitness now than they were 40 years ago, so you have a higher percentage of the population that are looking to train,” Berry said.
Berry said people know more about high protein, keto and body building today.
“I think fitness will continue to increase because people are getting more and more aware of it all the time,” Berry said. “With a health pandemic like this, people are going to be looking for something to keep them healthy. Fitness exercise and proper nutrition are the two most important things you can do for yourself.”
There was a time Bear’s was the only fitness center in the community. Now, other fitness centers are in Coahoma County, but Berry does not necessarily see that as a bad thing.
“If everybody that should be using it were using it, we would have to have probably three or four more fitness centers,” Berry said.
He also is able to see the silver lining with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We appreciate the customers,” Berry said. “We appreciate the whole community. I hope everybody is staying safe and I hope that they are exercising. One of the good things about this pandemic is it has slowed life down and let people kind of have a breather. People are getting to spend more time eating dinner like we did when I was a child.
“If they’re cooking at home, it probably is a little bit healthier because Mom’s watching what she’s doing.”
And watching what they’re doing and what you’re doing is a part of Bear’s Fitness Center.