All families have memories so monumental they come up at least once during every gathering, no matter the occasion. Oftentimes, the telling of these memories begins with the phrase, “Remember when…” And suddenly, each family member is taken on a vivid journey down memory lane.
Ron and Sandy Franco have owned and operated Franco’s Athletic Club in Mandeville, Louisiana, for 30 years. As a result, they have plenty of “Remember when” stories in their memory bank. Some are triumphant, others tragic. But at the core of each recollection is the theme of family — both that you’re born into and that you choose to be part of.
The Franco’s Athletic Club family got its start in 1986, when Ron and Sandy Franco moved to Mandeville with a dream of owning their own health club. Their hearts were set on The Bon Temps Racquet Club, a 28,000-square-foot club boasting four tennis courts, one pool, weight and aerobics rooms, and a small space for childcare.
The couple was in the beginning stages of attempting to negotiate the purchase of Bon Temps when they hit their first roadblock to seeing their dream come to fruition.
“We found out the owner hadn’t been paying his bills or taxes,” explained Sandy. “The club was seized by the federal government and they locked the doors. We had to go through a bunch of red tape and talk to different government agencies to find out if we could make the purchase. We sat by the phone for two years waiting for the right person to call back.”
Their patience was a virtue. The call finally came, and on April 17, 1988, Ron and Sandy Franco finalized the purchase of Bon Temps — just two months after having their first child. And two weeks later, they relaunched as Franco’s Athletic Club.
From the start, the Franco’s mission was to make the club a haven for families in the Mandeville community. This was a revolutionary idea for the time, with most 1980s gyms being geared toward single adults.
“We wanted the kids begging their parents to bring them to the club,” said Ron. “And then as they were leaving, we wanted them begging their parents to let them stay.”
As the Franco family grew — from one child to four — so did Franco’s Athletic Club. Over the years, the club doubled in size to encompass family-friendly amenities such as a water park, rock-climbing adventure room and sand volleyball courts. Meanwhile, adults gained access to a robust group exercise schedule, additional tennis courts, a salon and spa, boutique and coffee shop.
With each addition, the Francos kept families in mind, and used their own experiences being parents as inspiration.
“At 8 years old, our son stopped wanting to go to childcare with the younger children,” recalled Sandy. “He was really into skateboarding at the time, so we put a skate park in the back of the club. And then when our kids were really little, they’d keep jumping into the six-lane pool, which was too deep for them. So we realized we needed a children’s-themed pool. Our kids made us realize a lot of things we needed, and that continues to be the case to this day.”
The Francos also invested in the local community, raising thousands of dollars for local schools and giving back wherever and whenever possible.
But as is the case with all families, there’s a time to give and there’s a time to be given to. In 1990, two years after opening Franco’s Athletic Club, Ron and Sandy’s young daughter Danielle was diagnosed with leukemia, requiring her to be hospitalized.
“It was amazing to experience the support from our staff and the community,” said Sandy. “So many people wrote letters, sent cards, came to the hospital. We had so much mail from the local schools it looked like Miracle On 34th Street. I never in my life would have thought people cared so much, and we won’t ever be able to repay them back for that. Danielle has fully recovered and is healthy and grown now, but it just goes to show that when you support the community, they’ll support you back.”
In 1998, the Francos decided it was time to share the tight-knit community they’d built in Mandeville with others, and launched a second gym in New Orleans’ Lakeview area. Like the first, the new club quickly became a home-away-from-home for members.
Five years later, Hurricane Katrina hit. Franco’s Lakeview took on nine feet of water, leading to irreparable damage that gave the owners no choice but to close.
Despite their own personal devastation, the Francos never lost sight of their mission to serve others. In the aftermath of Katrina, they opened the Mandeville location’s doors to as many people as possible, offering WiFi, a place to sleep or shower, or simply somewhere to seek refuge.
According to Ron, time and time again the club has proven to be a safe haven for members and staff during times of hardship. What’s the point of being a family if you can’t lean on one another in times of need?
“When there are tragedies, if your club is what it should be to its members and employees, it’s a social hub,” said Ron. “When 9/11 happened, our coffee shop was packed, because people wanted to be around others to talk and air things out.”
In 2013, the Francos realized a void had been left when the club in Lakeview closed due to Hurricane Katrina. As a result, they returned to New Orleans, opening a club in the heart of the city on Magazine Street, and soon after, a CrossFit box in Mandeville.
Today, growth is once again on the horizon for the Francos as they pursue a new venture. Just over a year ago they became Crunch franchisees, and in May 2018 opened their first franchise location in Ridgeland, Mississippi, right outside of Jackson.
“We wanted to be able to expand what we were doing all along the Gulf Coast, to be able to offer fitness to more people and create growth opportunities for our employees,” explained Sandy. “To duplicate what we have in Mandeville would cost a fortune, so we went and looked at franchise opportunities and Crunch’s mission aligned with ours so well. It was a perfect fit and a good move for us.”
Although the new clubs won’t fall under the Franco’s name, an emphasis on family and community will remain paramount. In addition, they’ll bring with them all of the lessons learned from the many “Remember when” stories collected throughout the past 30 years.
“There’s truth in saying it takes a lot of perseverance to be successful, and if you have a dream you believe in, it’s not always easy,” said Sandy. “For us, it has never come easy, but it is always worth everything we have come through when we look back on it all.”