OLD TOWN — The man behind Fleet Feet Sports Chicago has turned what was once a tiny store on North Avenue into a community-driven running machine.
Dave Zimmer, a former semi-pro baseball player, said his two Fleet Feet locations have become the model for the country's running stores to try to live up to.
"We are probably one of the most copied stores in America," he said.
Fleet Feet was one of the first to use video cameras to get the perfect fit for runners.
Back in 1996, Zimmer used a handheld camera and a treadmill, but these days he uses an iPad that can show runners in slow motion how to perfect their stride.
A big chunk of the success is due to the community that Zimmer has built with Chicago's runners.
Since the first year he opened the business, Fleet Feet has been hosting a fun run every Monday night, which brings out about 100 people weekly.
The community of runners has grown so strong over the 17 years that 22 marriages have resulted.
"There's flames and sparks that happen," said Colin Gazley, a 24-year-old Edgewater resident who leads the weekly runs.
"It's the kind of essential community," Gazley said. "The community element is huge. It's what brings people out."
A lot of the runners show up weekly, but there is no requirement or skill set.
"The regulars I kind of refer to as almost like "Cheers," where we have this core group of people that come in," Zimmer said. "You will see them every Monday night."
Fleet Feet Chicago's two locations, one in Old Town and a second in Lincoln Square, also host classes to teach new runners proper technique. A South Loop location is scheduled to open in August at 150 W. Roosevelt Road.
Zimmer, 47, quit his job at Citibank on a whim in the '90s.
He was never a huge runner, but was finishing a book written by the woman who founded the national Fleet Feet chain, and after reading the last page, decided he needed a career change.
"At age 30, I said I'm going to give up everything that I know [and] whatever comes, comes," Zimmer said.
That year he opened his first franchise, the 1,400 square-foot-Old Town location , which was then one of 32 Fleet Feet locations nationwide.
Since 2000, Fleet Feet Sports Chicago has been the highest volume franchise out of the now 105 locations nationwide.
Again, Zimmer credits the community of runners that he's built.
"Our whole goal is just to kind of build this community, and the sale of the shoes is the byproduct of that," he said. "We don’t start the day and end the day saying, 'Did we sell 20 pairs of shoes today?' "
Zimmer's second project — training — provides another hook to the stores.
Chicago Endurance Sports provides guidance and coaching for all levels of runners: from those who have never trotted a mile to those training for Ironman races.
A third arm of the business model is putting together races, such as the Ravenswood Run (which has grown to 3,500 people), the Rudolph Ramble 8K, and the Soldier Field 10 Mile.
The runs are just a small part of the business, according to Zimmer, with the two stores accounting for about 85 percent of revenues.
Zimmer's favorite movie is "It's a Wonderful Life," and to him, making a runner comfortable and excited about the sport can be a life-changing event.
"This idea that the people that we come in contact with have the ability to do better with people that they come in contact with really makes me feel good," he said.