Raisa Zhovklaya thought she was supposed to be in the best shape of her life when she turned 30. But at multiple points earlier this year, she felt disgusted with her body. Struggles with weight, acne break-outs, GI issues, and depression all contributed to a gradual lifestyle change. She began adjusting habits, like drinking water, eating healthy, working out regularly, getting enough sleep, and talking to her doctors. What started as a goal to just feel better led to Zhovklaya founding Project LeanNation Syracuse, a health store slated to open at the beginning of next year in Township 5 in Camillus.
“I’ve always been interested and passionate about health and fitness, but I just never went full-force into it until I decided to approach it in a whole different way,” Zhovklaya said. “So many people don’t think of Syracuse as a hip and healthy town or city, so I think we need to bring more of those things to our area as well.”
Project LeanNation is a small retail franchise that aims to help people achieve healthier lifestyles through pre-packaged, portion-controlled meals. It originated in Rochester, has locations in Binghamton and Canandaigua, and is currently expanding to states like New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Texas.
Similar to the Rochester headquarters, PLN Syracuse will sell pre-packaged frozen meals, ready-to-order smoothies and protein shakes, and merchandise. All meals are made fresh, packaged in Rochester, and shipped frozen to each franchise. Meals like chicken Alfredo, Nashville hot chicken, or back to basics beef are gluten-free, and meal combinations can be grain-free, dairy-free, and plant-based. Each meal is portion-controlled with specific counts on calories, protein, carbs, and fats.
The frozen meals will be available for pick-up at the store through a subscription, or customers can try a meal that’s microwaved in-store. New customers can choose a meal plan, build their own menu that fits their lifestyle goal, and subscribe to regular meals as a PLN member.
“I know the quality of the meals, and I stand behind the ingredients,” Zhovklaya said. “There’s less waste. They change up the menu every three months. Just the way that they’re vacuum sealed helps them stay fresher. Sometimes, I’ve literally just grabbed it from the freezer, and it’s dethawed and ready to heat up by the time I’m at work, so it makes meal-prep very convenient.”
Each PLN store also has an InBody 270 assessment scanner. Customers can receive a body scan that calculates their basal metabolic rate, percentage body fat, muscle mass, water weight, and more. Zhovklaya said she and her other staff at PLN Syracuse will be able to read the customer’s scans and give them general guidance on their body composition and how they could improve their lifestyle choices based on their numbers.
“I think when people step on a scale, they get pretty defeated,” Zhovklaya said. “Either they don’t see anything move, or they think it’s all about the weight. If you actually look at a body composition assessment like this, you’ll see the areas you need to work on, and if you don’t have to work on anything, you’ll see the areas you need to maintain.”
Zhovklaya grew up in Central New York after she immigrated from Ukraine. She, her parents, and her eight siblings each built careers and new lives in the US, learning that hard work was the only way to be successful and accomplish goals, she said.
“My parents often worked a lot of overtime shifts, so they weren’t home very often, but they were really good with saving money, and they knew they wanted a better future for us,” Zhovklaya said. “We’ve all made it in different ways. For me, it was getting my nursing degree to have the finances to have a better life.”
Zhovklaya earned her nursing degree from Crouse Hospital and has been a registered nurse in Syracuse for more than 10 years. While also working as a private duty nurse, she enjoys her current job as Stroke Program Outreach Coordinator for SUNY Upstate Medical University. In May, Zhovklaya entered herself into Ms. Health & Fitness 2022, a national online competition hosted by Muscle & Fitness HERS magazine. The woman with the most votes (based on their personal fitness story) would be featured on the cover and win $20,000.
“It was just about celebrating the progress that I had made,” Zhovklaya said, explaining that participating in the contest was part of her motivation to stay focused on her healthier lifestyle. Zhovklaya lost during the quarterfinals. If she had won, Zhovklaya said she would’ve used the prize money to help fund the PLN franchise in Syracuse.
“I told my mom [that] if I didn’t feel at peace about it, then I was going to stop,” Zhovklaya said. “But I’ve not only felt at peace about it throughout this entire journey, I’ve been given more and more encouragement and confidence. It was almost as if God knew I needed that to continue to keep going. And even now with the financial aspects of it, I’ve put a lot of money into this, but I still feel like this is my calling.”
Zhovklaya said she took out loans and got extra money from her family to afford her lease in Township 5 and start construction on the space. Zhovklaya didn’t hire a general contractor, so she and other family members are working to build the interior of the store themselves.
“Their price was so high, and I have a very handy family,” Zhovklaya said. “I know how involved I’d like to be in this project, and I know I’d want to check on things every day. This way, I get to hire who I want to hire, and I’m honored to have my family help where I can have that help.”
When PLN founder Tim Dougherty met Zhovklaya for the first time, he recognized his passion for the business right away. He and PLN executives often invite potential franchise owners to their headquarters in Rochester for a “discovery day” to educate them on the business and vet them for future PLN locations.
“Raisa is a light to so many people around her,” Dougherty said. “She’s so enthusiastic for the things that most people aren’t excited about, like measuring a meal in the kitchen. Her enthusiasm about it made everyone else around her excited too. Typically people come to us with more business experience and more resources, but what she brings to the table are things that we don’t see very often and things that aren’t very teachable. They can have all the money in the world, but if they aren’t excited about helping others, they’re probably not a good fit for us.”
Dougherty founded PLN in 2011 and grew the business steadily between its Northeast locations. He started franchising locations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Anyone interested in learning more about PLN Syracuse before the grand opening can visit their landing page to sign up for early membership information and updates or follow them on Facebook. Until then, Zhovklaya is excited and ready for a new chapter in her life to begin.
“It’s nice to know that not only is this a passion project for me, but so many other people I’ve met are excited for it too,” Zhovklaya said. “I literally feel like every step of my life has prepared me for this moment. Everything that’s happened, everywhere I’ve worked, every person I’ve met has literally prepared me for this. And I just feel like this is so right. I feel so good at this moment. This is where I need to be.”
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