Commerce And Culture July/August 2006

The Next Starbucks?

How massage went from the strip club to the strip mall
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As something of a massage addict, I don’t buy the medical line, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Assuming it’s not too vigorous, a massage not only feels good but also helps me think. It’s relaxing, but not so relaxing that I fall asleep. Like a nice glass of wine with dinner or an all-white Heavenly Bed in a hotel room, a massage break adds a little pleasure to everyday life. Even if the massage does nothing for my health, I consider the money well spent.

Humans are sensory beings. Massage doesn’t need to justify pleasing our muscles and skin any more than music has to justify pleasing our ears. Chefs don’t have to call themselves “nutritional therapists.” Hairstylists don’t have to pretend that gray hair is a disease. Enjoyment is a perfectly fine reason to get a massage.

So I was relieved to meet David Palmer, a massage-industry pioneer who believes in the intrinsic value of touch, whether or not it’s “therapy.” Palmer doesn’t even use the T-word, referring instead to “massage practitioners.” Like the people who built the first personal computers, he represents a special Bay Area blend of bohemian self-actualization and entrepreneurial drive. He, too, is a commercial and cultural innovator—as the inventor of the contemporary chair massage, Palmer is the man responsible for all those public shoulder rubs in airports and elsewhere.

In 1982, he was running a San Francisco massage school and worried that not enough graduates were finding jobs. If massage was so great, why didn’t more people want it?

The answer was pretty obvious: everything about the experience scared off potential clients. “If you want to make sure massage didn’t make it into the mainstream,” Palmer says, “make it as expensive, inconvenient, and scary as possible. Force people to go into a private room behind closed doors, take off all their clothes with a stranger, lie down on a table, get slathered with oil for an hour, and pay $70, $80, $90 for the privilege.”

Massage needed a form that was cheap, quick, convenient, and fully clothed. Palmer developed an acupressure-based routine, or kata, that took just fifteen minutes and was done while the client sat on a drummer’s stool. Although a chair massage might cost more per minute than a table massage, the price for the experience was much lower. The next step was to create a special chair to support the client’s head, arms, and legs.

“Once you have a massage chair,” says Palmer, “then the massage industry thinks, Oh, this must be real.” Once massage chairs start showing up everywhere, potential clients don’t think of massage as a shady business. And more people decide that they, too, might want to give massages for a living.

One obstacle to the industry’s growth is the fact that massage is labor intensive, the quintessential hands-on service. A massage entrepreneur can’t automate the experience—those vibrating chairs are a lousy substitute for the real thing—and can’t outsource the labor to low-wage foreigners (unless, of course, the price includes airfare and hotel accommodations). Giving an hour-long massage takes an hour of someone’s time, and that someone has to be paid.

But one way to build a new industry is to create a more satisfying way to work. In today’s affluent United States, people are remarkably willing to take lower wages, fewer benefits, and less security in exchange for less stress.

Less stress means flexible hours and enjoyable work, not a more reliable income. Massage pay is decent—doing twenty hours of actual massage a week, a practitioner will likely make $30,000 to $35,000 a year—but therapists get paid only if clients show up. For most massage therapists, having a fulfilling job seems to be worth the uncertainty.

David Palmer, the massage-chair inventor, says he not only wants “to make touch a social value” but also to make massage a source of meaningful work. “There is something seriously sad about a culture where people spend most of their waking lives doing something that doesn’t have meaning—inherent, intrinsic meaning—for them,” he says. He worries that massage still isn’t popular enough to absorb the skyrocketing number of people who’d like to practice it: some 70,000 Americans graduated from massage schools last year.

So Palmer and an ambitious young business partner, Sam Keller, are out to create the Starbucks of chair massage—to turn a fragmented, feel-good industry into a ubiquitous brand. Their new enterprise, Zubio, is all about creating consistent expectations, for both client and practitioner.

Instead of plopping down a massage chair in someone else’s store or office, Zubio installs permanent, semi-private kiosks. It trains practitioners in its specific kata and pays them by the hour, plus tips and stock options (this is the Bay Area, after all). Clients make appointments either on the booth’s touchscreen or via the Internet. One person can run the booth, concentrating on giving massages rather than handling appointments and paperwork. “It’s high tech meets high touch,” says Keller.

Zubio opened its first kiosk in December and rolled out a couple more in the spring. Whether America is ready for the Starbucks of massages—and whether Zubio is it—remains to be seen. But Palmer’s dissatisfaction and determination have already changed the world. Twenty years ago, after all, no airport traveler looked for a chair massage. Especially in Indianapolis.

Virginia Postrel is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Her blog, The Dynamist, can be found at http://www.dynamist.com/weblog.
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Virginia Postrel is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor in chief of deepglamour.net. She is writing a book about glamour. More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of DeepGlamour.net.
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