Barred out: S&N Nutrition and Gym

Owner Nolan Williams talks small business, culture in a post-lockdown world

Published by Hayden Schultz, Date: March 18, 2024
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With a frame akin to a silverback gorilla and strength capable of overhead pressing 400 lbs. for five reps, owner of S&N Nutrition and Slippery Rock Barbell Gym Nolan Williams said he still feels the weight of the post-pandemic world on his shoulders.

“If you want Slippery Rock to expand, this whole online culture, it has to go away,” he said.

The post-pandemic era experienced one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history, unproportionally serving “essential” and online corporations owned by the “super-wealthy,” according to the World Economic Forum.

“You’re just a dollar amount, you’re a bottom line to them,” the owner of S&N said. “That’s corporations in general.”

S&N survived the small business onslaught of COVID-19 policy but it left him with a couple scars.

Williams is set to close down his Butler location on April 1. He said his main priority is still reinvesting in the Slippery Rock business to give back to his loyal customers helping him through the last three years.

“It isn’t all about that for me,” he said, referring to profit margins. “I need enough to be able to survive but I’m not here to gouge you to make millions.”

Humble beginnings

Williams ironically started his career in the corporate supplement industry earning what would prove to be valuable experience. Employed at GNC, where he worked as a general manager, and Vitamin World, where Williams reached the status of regional manager, he tallied 14 years of experience before opening S&N.

“I just wanted to teach other people,” he said, after beginning to lift competitively in his early 20’s. “You don’t have to be happy with where you are at, you can always change it.”

“Don’t be happy with status quo,” the owner said. “Whatever you want you can get.”

After being in the industry Williams wanted to create a personable experience. The Butler Community College business graduate said he took what he learned from the industry and founded S&N founded on one principle: helping anyone who walks through his doors, no matter who they are or where they come from.

“I want to help you if you want to help us,” he said. “A lot of people come in and they’re friends and family once they make that connection with us.”

Although Williams now regularly moves triple-digit weight, he began his career in fitness at the age of 14, a time when he said he struggled.

Williams said when he was younger, he weighed over 250 pounds, was out of shape and “came from nothing.” He said his family usually shopped at discount stores like Goodwill for basic needs.

“I was very bullied in school for being overweight and that kind of got me into lifting,” he said. “I still have body dysmorphia, just in a different way.”

As a result of his newfound passion, the certified specialist in nutrition said his confidence changed, along with his ability to talk to people and stand up for himself.

Not a one-stop shop

S&N Nutrition is not limited to supplements. They also host the Slippery Rock Barbell Gym, a 1,000 sq. ft. space of all essential, professional grade equipment. The gym is open 24/7 to members, something few gyms in the area offer. Memberships start at $75 a semester, or $25 per month.

He said S&N has plans to expand Slippery Rock Barbell Gym in 2025 through it’s parking area, expanding it to three times the current size with enough room to host 300 members, around 200 more than he currently has. He also hopes to expand his lineup of products with additional support.

“Every business in this area needs the support of the college and the college clientele or they can’t expand,” he said. “We don’t buy Lamborghinis with the money that you guys are bringing in.”

The owner explained how the S&N family is a complete package, not just offering supplements and a space to lift, but also knowledge on how to lift properly what products he recommends as a certified specialist in fitness nutrition.

“You get it free if you buy it here,” he said. “It’s part of the package.”

With the addition of his online shop, rivaling the likes of GNC or Amazon, you can order supplements S&N wherever you are in Slippery Rock, or in some cases, the world.

“I have a guy deployed in Africa that still orders from us who used to go here,” he said. “Everybody that comes in and shows support, I remember you.”

Williams has more loyal customers as far as Hawaii and Italy. Ex-frequenter, Jake, is also stationed on in the military, this time on the Mediterranean coast.

“I remember his name and I haven’t seen him in four years,” he said. “But I still remember him every time he orders.”

Most of these connections were formed before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, something Williams said has greatly diminished his business’, and other small operations’, ability to connect with the community due to cultural changes in how we interact and shop.

Weight of the world

Williams recalled life before the pandemic in 2019, how difficult it was to find a parking spot at places like Sheetz. He said it is getting better now but the overall traffic is hardly what it used to be. And if foot traffic was running light at big corporations, he said, it would certainly be foreboding for small businesses too.

The owner said sometimes it takes people a while to get in, with customers assuming S&N might be just another bland GNC or a mom-and-pop shop whose prices aren’t competitive.

“We’re actually cheaper than online,” he said, comparing himself to large retailers like Vitamin Shoppe and online corporations like Amazon. “If you can get it here locally, get it locally.”

In addition to customers graduating and leaving and a newfound lack of connection with the incoming freshmen and sophomores, Williams said a lot of people were not using supplements because they were not working out or couldn’t afford them. Williams said he related to the latter, especially with the birth of Luca, his four-year-old son.

“We weren’t able to go into the university for almost two years,” he said. “Everybody that did know about us is gone.”

Another aspect of pandemic induced behavior is “suitcase campuses,” a phenomenon where students who reside on campus flee for the weekend, often returning home. Williams said this trend and policies by the university such forcing freshman and sophomores to stay on campus has chewed away at small businesses.

“Amazon’s number from COVID went through the roof and small businesses ended,” he said. “We did just enough to get by.”

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams’ wife, Sarah, was pregnant with Luca. Williams explained the pandemic made it fight or flight for S&N.

“I’m proud that we made it through,” he said. “And we made it through hyperinflation but I don’t know if we’ll make it through this one,” he said, referring to the current state of the economy and the upcoming presidential election.

2023 was the first time SN did not grow in its six-and-a-half-year lifespan. Gross sales did not increase and Williams recently announced the closure of his Butler investment, set to occur on April 1. The S&N product line and some best-selling brands like Axe and Sledge will remain at the location in Greater Butler Mart operated by Elite Customs.

Another cultural change Williams said he saw was not on the business side, but rather in gym culture, something he has been involved with for over two decades.

Gym culture changes

“The problem is with TikTok, social media, is it’s all SARMs,” he said.

SARMs, or selective androgen receptor modulators are commonly used for enhancing muscle growth. According to a study published in Nature magazine, SARMs were originally synthesized for treatment of muscle wasting conditions, osteoporosis and breast cancer.

Although banned in most sport competitions, SARMs remains popular for recreational use.

“I like in a way that they are open about it but not in another way cause now they are thinking ‘If I want to look like that I gotta do [SARMs],’” he said. “At the same time, I want them to realize, some of their heroes didn’t get there by being totally natural.”

Williams explained a situation where a young adult, 18 or 19 years old, came in asking for SARMs, not understanding the potential risks. Williams said he was able to convince him it was not a smart idea at his age.

He said young adults’ endocrine systems are “barely firing on all cylinders” and recommends avoiding SARMs when you really don’t need them, as the chemical, like any other product affecting hormones, can disrupt the endocrine system and has unknown long-term effects.

“Whenever somebody is coming in and asking my honest opinion, it ain’t about making money on it,” he said. “I want to talk to you about what you are going to do to your body.”

Williams looks forward to seeing members of the community in upcoming events, like Mr. and Ms. SRU, a bodybuilding competition at the ARC on April 6 and 7.

The owner said he looks forward to the future, where he will be in ARC two or three days a week lifting next semester after he fully recovers from surgery to fix collapsed arches in both his feet. He also said he will host or travel to events every week, similar to his recent appearance at The Grove Farmer’s Market on Wednesday, to show what S&N has to offer and connect with the community.

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