By Theodore N. Beitchman
Energy makes a noise.
An actual noise
Hear it faintly as you stroll south on 19th St. from Rittenhouse Square, past Metropolitan Bakery and Marathon Grill.
Cross Spruce, Delancey, Pine and Lombard and it gets louder as you approach a nondescript building on the west side of the street where Ubers, Lyfts, bikes and limos are headed.
Women arrive on foot in Lululemons and no make-up, along with real estate developers, men on crutches, and boomers, Millennials in knee braces and octogenarians hoping to stave off or get a leg up on the aging process.
They are all drawn to the building with the force field:
The banner at 520 South 19th shouts “Z,” in a big red letter — the home of Zarett Rehab & Fitness.
There is a reason 70 is the new 45:
Aging boomers are especially mindful of rehabbing physical injuries and staying fit.
To call it a big business is an understatement.
Which is appropriate because Joe Zarett is a master of understatement.
He emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine in 1979 with his parents and sister Marina, settling in Philly’s Bells Corner neighborhood.
Like thousands of other Jewish refugees, they fled the Commies back in Kiev — which was then a part of the Soviet Union — and it turns out their new homeys weren’t very welcoming either.
It wasn’t easy to fit in for a 15-year-old who spoke no English.
“We were among the first wave of Russian-speaking people who moved in — I was the first Russian to attend Northeast High, and I had lots of fights,” the now-54-year-old 6-foot, 215-pound Zarett says with a hint of a smile.
Joe was a smart kid who loved sports, and he played soccer at Northeast.
One day in the winter of 1981, Zarett was flat on his back, having suffered a high ankle sprain while playing for the Vikings.
He was in a bare-bones rehab facility, which was suggested by the team doctor whose expertise was limited to what he had learned in med school.
But he knew nothing about rehab.
S0, as Zarett put ice on his ankle, which was elevated, he had an epiphany.
I CAN DO THIS BETTER.
An Ah-Ha moment.
Flash forward to December 2019, and Zarett — who doesn’t like to sit — is sitting for an interview in his office in the spiffily designed building across from the old Graduate Hospital, which is now Good Shephard Penn Partners Rehab.
In Hebrew, the letter “Z” on the banner loosely means “weapon of the spirit.”
Zarett’s spirit is the weapon that has made him a huge success.
Just check the walls of Zarett’s four-story headquarters — lots of photos of clients who have given him permission to use their names and faces.
Cool kids ranging from John McEnroe and Pete Sampras to Comcast biggies Brian Roberts and Neil Smit (it was Comcast’s Steve Burke who inspired Joe to expand into the new Comcast Tech building on 18th St., but more about that later).
Not to mention young musical savants from Curtis Institute, attorneys like Shanin Specter and his late dad Senator Arlen, Philly Film Office czarina Sharon Pinkenson, Penn-bred financial legend George Ross; various NFL and NBA players, Sly Stallone and Michael B. Jordan, the actor, not the baller.
They’re a point of pride for Joe Zarett and his business acumen.
And they are similar to the celeb caricatures on the walls of the Palm.
Except the Palm makes you fat and Zarett makes and keeps you fit.
After graduating from Northeast, Zarett went to Temple and then College of Pharmacy and Science (now University of the Sciences), aiming for a career in physical therapy.
But life interrupted when his father died two weeks before his graduation from Physical Therapy School and Joe was suddenly responsible for his mother, who worked as an engineer, and his sister.
He had worked during grad school with Dr. Larry Greenberg, who had a PT practice in Elkins Park. “I got my first patient better,” he says matter-of-factly, “took away all his headaches.”
While he was still in college he had also worked at Einstein and at Salem County Hospital in Jersey, in addition to work as a personal trainer at One-on-One, a training facility on Walnut Street co-owned by condo king-turned-city councilman Allan Domb.
That business failed, but Zarett, who continued to train his clients, didn’t and he told Domb, “A place like this could work. If I were a client, there is nothing around like this.” Domb responded, “When you’re ready let me know,” which was Ah-ha No. 2.
Joe never let Domb know, otherwise rehab and fitness would today be a piece of the Domb empire, which includes real estate and restaurants and maybe a run for mayor in 2023.
It was the early-1990s and Philly was just getting back on its feet financially and business-wise. The Sporting Club had opened in the Bellevue — “it was the nicest facility in the city,” he says — 12th Street Gym was busy and so was World Gym.
In the late 1990s Zarett met Pat Croce, who had parlayed a gig as conditioning coach for the Flyers into a physical therapy empire consisting of 40 venues before he sold it to NovaCare for $40 million before buying the Sixers in 1996 and reviving the franchise.
“Pat became my mentor,” Zarett says. “He has so much energy and intelligence. He got me to read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now,’ whose theme was how important it is to love what you do.”
Dr Don Chu, the world-renowned physical therapist from Stanford, also has been an important influence on Zarett’s career.
From 1989 through 1995, Zarett was employed by the orthopedic surgeons who filled the offices of 520 S. 19th, and who directed rehab clients his way. He finally took the plunge and opened his own rehab and fitness business in the basement of the building in 1995.
The healthcare industry was changing, as it seems to do constantly, Graduate was sold and 520 S. 19th virtually emptied out of its physician tenan
So, in 2009 Zarett bought the building and started expanding his business.
“Pat Croce and his wife came to our grand opening. Arlen Specter gave a speech” and New York-based Peter Callahan, the swells’ event-planner of choice in the Hamptons and Manhattan, catered the party.
Six months later, a pipe burst in the building and there was six feet
of water in the basement.
“If I hadn’t bought the building and moved to the upper floors we would have been out of business,” he says.
Zarett is as circumspect about his personal life as he is about his client list and financial success, especially as it regards how profitable Zarett Rehab & Fitness is.
Suffice to say that he enjoys a “nice lifestyle” which just included a one-week vacay to the Caribbean with his fiancé, whose photo sets on his desk. Another photo is of his three children — a son at Fordham and two daughters who are high schoolers on the Main Line.
Zarett is also as intense about his business as Croce was about his —follow him for an hour as he does a tour of his workout rooms and you feel and hear his energy.
To paraphrase the Passover Four Questions:
Why is this rehab and fitness joint different from all others?
In a city that has all levels of fitness offered from ubiquitous PSC — Philadelphia Sports Clubs — to LA Fitness to the Sporting Club to NovaCare, what attracts clients in the city and the suburbs to schlepp to 520 S. 19th Street?
Here’s a random Yelp posting:
Unlike other facilities where the therapists give you an exercise and then walk away, the exercise physiologists are there with you 100% of the time making sure you’re doing the exercises correctly and with the right form. I did not find this 1 on 1 attention at any other facility. Following the training, the manual therapy I received was fantastic. They definitely push you, but I can already tell a difference even after 1 session. I will definitely update my review once I’m finished with rehab, but I’m excited to see how Zarett rehab helps me get back on my feet!
Clients pay $125 per hour for a session with one of Zarett’s 65 exercise physiologists/kinesiologists/massage therapists and physical therapists, all of whom wear black polo shirts emblazoned with a red “Z,” just in case they need the spirit.
“Push it that way,” he advises one real estate developer who is sweating profusely.
“How is he treating you?” he asks an 80-something woman who isn’t sweating because nothing makes her sweat. “Keep your arms up as much as you can!”
“Keep pushing on that machine,” he advises one teen-ager, who is definitely sweating and feeling the energy.
Zarett is hands-on, which many self-starting business people are, but in rehab and fitness business it has a literal meaning.
“Business has to be an extension of your personality,” he says, a Croce-ism.
Zareet’s personality is intense.
And he loves to read.
“Younger Next Year,” for instance, co-written by one of the country’s most prominent internists, Dr. Henry “Harry” Lodge, and his star patient, the 73-year-old Chris Crowley.
It shows you how to put off 70 percent of the normal problems of aging (weakness, sore joints, bad balance) and eliminate 50 percent of serious illness and injury.
“There are three ways of fighting the aging process: Exercise, Commitment and Companionship,” Zarett says.
Companionship being a euphemism for having a partner.
Zarett works six days a week, typically from 7:30 a. m. some days as late as 6, though he’ll bag work early for his own workouts, and then go home to his Rittenhouse Square apartment and finds a Netflix movie.
A year and a half ago he expanded his business by adding a second rehab and fitness facility in the Comcast Center, which allows Comcast employees to stay fit without leaving the building and which stretches Zarett’s work footprint an extra mile.
Burke, who now is the top man at Comcast-owned NBC/Universal, lived in Philly near the Mother Ship and was a regular client to restore his body after having run 13 marathons.
The Zarett Rehab and Fitness at Comcast facility is 10,000 square feet compared to the mother ship’s 13,000 feet, but the mojo is the same, and so is the mission:
A three-prong approach to rehabilitation, which includes strength training, flexibility improvement and manual muscle work. The goal of this, Zarett says, “is balancing the body.”
Zarett says he’ll never retire, but he does take breaks like his week in the Caribbean, or to Europe or Israel — “I love getting away when it’s cold” — and he likes to fish in the Poconos and ride his bike along the Schuylkill.
He retains a strong affinity for Northeast Philly, where he grew up.
“I still go to NetCost,” the Russian/European market on Bustleton Avenue near Washington High. “They have terrific Chicken Kiev and Perogies. And I take my kids to the Northeast to show them the old neighborhood,” he says.
“You should never forget where you came from.”
Zarett thinks his late father “would be proud of him and also how my sister and mom have turned out.”
His mom is 79 and lives in the Dorchester, just a short hop from Joe, and she comes to 520 S. 19th “about three times a week” to stay in shape
Turns out that energy runs in the Zarett family.