The Permanent Startup: RelaxFeet disrupts the massage industry, one foot at a time
If you've spent much time walking in the neighborhoods of San Francisco for the past few years, you may recognize Juvey, the friendly foot. The mascot currently adorns the 13 storefronts operated by RelaxFeet, a local, affordable chain of massage parlors.
"From the outside, you know, people want to know if this is a legit massage place or not. I think we still have a way to go, but we are trying to build our brand image, that's why we developed the logo and the mascot," says Vincent Tom, one of RelaxFeet's co-founders.
RelaxFeet offers a hot foot soak and fully-clothed, full-body massage, for the low, low price of $25 an hour. It's a clean but no-frills experience. The foot-bath, steeped with a variety of herbal blends, happens in a plastic bag set inside a plastic tub. Plain white towels cover rows of easy-chairs – spoiler alert: they fold down into massage tables with face-holes – in a mostly open room. The implements used are all affordable but effective.
All of the company's 60 masseuses are California certified massage therapists. They come almost exclusively from China, and for many this is their first job in the US.
"There is this stereotype when people think of Asian massage places, they think of the sex industry and of things like human trafficking. But our employees have to have a green card and a license. They are all insured. There is a guy for the Health Department that comes and checks every week, we have inspections all the time," says Tom.
"A lot of our employees, people sometimes complain that they don’t really speak English. But a lot of these men and women came to the US for a better life, and they can’t do anything else. Many of them have acupuncture or massage licenses from China and they had to go through school all over again here because those certificates aren't valid."
The business began in 2007 with a single store in the Sunset District. Tom, an SF native and graduate of the University of San Francisco, returned from years spent in the restaurant business in China to form the company with Lee Haobin and a silent investor.
"It was kind of a surprise that it did so well," he says.
It was during the economic downturn that the business really took off. At the time, commercial rents and real estate prices were such that RelaxFeet, despite its small margins, was able to gobble up leases and even purchase some of its locations, several of which are in neighborhoods that have since become trendy. And despite the wild increases in rents, the company has continued to expand: they opened two new stores in 2014.
Though the basic customer experience hasn't changed much over the years, Tom says they have been tweaking things to be more efficient. Nowadays, the towels are washed and sanitized by Aramark, instead of in-house. They've hired someone to update their website to allow online bookings and other offerings – "it's nothing major like Google or anything" – and invested in better POS and accounting software. Based on customer feedback, they've added private rooms to some locations. They used the site 99designs to solicit mascot designs.
It's somewhat fascinating that a massage business catering to middle-income earners should flourish in this city, even while it becomes an increasingly difficult place for the middle class to live. Especially given that RelaxFeet does no marketing. Tom says that the key has been changing the perception of massage.
"It used to be a luxury thing. Not everyone could afford it, and even those that could couldn't do it on a regular basis"
"Our core business has always been: to make massage affordable and accessible. Our target audience is the people who really need massage: taxi drivers, retail workers, people who work with their hands or are on their feet all day. We haven't really done much marketing, it's all been word-of-mouth, reputation-based."
Indeed, this is how I heard about the place back in 2008. Full disclosure: I've been a RelaxFeet customer since.
Tom says that looking forward, the business will have to continue to improve its services and integrate technology, in part to meet the challenge of the recent minimum wage increase. It will continue to tweak the offering slightly. They are beginning to offer outcall massage – "kind of like Uber or something like that" – and have developed some new membership plans.
It's an unlikely story of the success of a disruptive enterprise, in these heady days when so many such stories fight for traction. It's a story of immigration, a story of gender – Tom says 70% of RelaxFeet customers are women – and a story of innovation. But its a story about a small business, so its a story that is never told.
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