Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Random fact: Steele is a classically trained investment banker who never intended on starting a wellness business.
The restaurant: Barrio—owned by Ryan Burnet, the real estate wizard behind some of the cities’ best restaurants, including Bar La Grassa and Burch. Steele’s Alacrán tequila has a lot of company on Nicollet Mall; Barrio has more than 100 tequilas behind the bar.
What we ate: Barrio’s tacos are fantastic, and the spicy Habanero Chicken Tamal is underrated. The masa is sweet, contrasted with that spicy chicken served with a smoked guajilo pepper salsa. It’s cliché, but Steele had a Jicama & Citrus salad. The tequila orange vinaigrette made it, with a pop of tangerine juice.
My date: Steele says there are two things people should do every day: Be active and eat better.
Given the name “Steele,” it was probably inevitable that Steele Smiley would start his own fitness company (which he sold just last year). At 36, he’s not making resolutions for 2015, but he is still helping people achieve theirs. We lunched at Barrio in Minneapolis, over a bottle of Alacrán tequila—a company he now partially owns.
The bottle is very sexy.
I saw it in a design blog. I said that’s the most unbelievable looking bottle that I’ve seen. I need to be a part of it. It’s a matte bottle. It was like an art project for me.
So you tracked down the owners and invested?
The unpublished story is they are the Escobar kids. The family. They have an incredible amount of money. They built the best tequila. There’s a sinister story to this. That family knows two things well: product distribution and product purity. [Laughs]
You came here for a job.
I graduated business school at University of Virginia. My first job was in Minnesota working for a technology company, we raised $120 million for a tech company at the end of the dot-com boom. It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, so I decided to take a one-year sabbatical to do what I wanted to do.
In 2006 there was nothing like the STEELE Fitness studios.
I felt there was an opening in the ultra high-end market. They deserve something unique and special, so I built something that was completely over the top.
Then in 2013, your life changed—Snap Fitness bought the brand.
Little would I have known that seven years later I could have sold the firm for a great multiple. My name is attached to the company. That’s the odd thing when you sell a brand that you’re tied to. In our purchase agreement, 25 or 26 pages are documents around the name.
I mean, seriously, Steele Smiley can’t be your real name.
It’s my real name. I should pull out my driver’s license so you can completely verify it.
There it is. This is legit. But it’s not just “Steele,” it’s doubling down on “Smiley.”
My family was in the radio business for years, so they had a sense for this. My grandfather owned the first radio signal to go over Yellowstone Park [Dick Smiley, KWYS].
As a kid, how much grief did you get?
You either embrace it or run from it. I embraced it. But it wasn’t a brand until Under Armour used it. They made clothes with my name on it. That was crazy, Jason. That’s a whole new level.
What have you learned about the top-shelf, high-income client?
That’s a really good question, and I’m trying to be political about how I answer it. So let me take another shot of tequila. [Laughs]
They can be demanding.
Our average client was spending $1,000 a month with us per person. Money doesn’t guarantee you anything that not having money does. It may give you more opportunities to get back on track, but these people aren’t overwhelmingly happier.
Most people say that, but I suspect most don’t truly believe it.
I don’t think I knew this as a 25-year-old kid. It was glamorous! But now we’re open to a much larger number of people. It’s a great feeling.
It’s January, how do you feel about people packing gyms for their resolutions?
On the one hand, it’s great that people have the opportunity to say, ‘This year I’m going to make a change in my life.’ On the other hand, it’s a complete shame that people have to wait once a year to make a change.
You do lead a bit of a crazy fitness life.
I work out every day. I probably do 10 workouts a week. I run every morning—9 degrees today, full-face mask, I make it happen.
Will you stay here?
I love it here. My family is here. My oldest son plays lacrosse at Wayzata. My daughter is a dancer, and my youngest just picked up a hockey stick. This is a great place to live at least three months of the year. [Laughs]