Sandi Vilacoba demonstrates a core-strengthening device in her new Pilates studio at the Fair Haven Shopping Center. Below, Vilacoba and her grandmother, Ofelia Schwarz, who owns the center. (Photos by Danielle Tepper. Click to enlarge)


A drive down River Road in Fair Haven, with its quaint mom-and-pop shops, can be something of an escape from mainstream consumerism.

But even the borough’s most prominent strip mall, the Fair Haven Shopping Center, anchored by an Acme supermarket, has a family story to it. The Schwarz family’s story.

After nearly a decade of teaching Pilates elsewhere in Monmouth County, Sandi Vilacoba opened her own classical Pilates studio, dubbed The Pilates Project, over Memorial Day weekend. With that, the third generation of her family cemented its ties to the center.

“My grandparents immigrated from Cuba to Fair Haven in 1960 with nothing and built a business from scratch,” said Vilacoba, of Belmar.

Her grandfather, David Schwarz, was a builder in the Red Bank area and in 1978 bought the property on which he built the shopping center. After Schwarz died in 1986, his wife, Ofelia, took over the daily operations. Now 87 years old, she can still be found in her office every morning filing paperwork and collecting rent from the other business owners.

“It’s good for her,” said Vilacoba. “It keeps her going.”

Schwarz stops in on her granddaughter from time to time to see how she’s doing. “It’s nice to be two doors down from her. She loves how [the studio] looks.”

Schwarz was the one who suggested that Vilacoba take the newly available space for her studio. A vitamin distribution center that had operated there for approximately 30 years closed, and the timing was perfect for Vilacoba. “I had actually already been thinking of getting my own space,” she said. “And then it just opened up.”

Vilacoba’s father, Leonard Needle, also maintained his law office in the center from 1994 until last year.

“I adore my grandmother. I love that this has given me the opportunity to see her each morning,” Vilacoba said. “She’s a very business-savvy woman and I’ve learned a lot from listening to her insights over the years. Without a doubt, her guidance has helped me get the studio off to a successful start.”

Vilacoba, 36, is a former dancer whose résumé includes Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World and national tours of musical theater smash hits such as West Side Story and 42nd Street. She said she hopes her intimate studio setting will help address some Pilates stigmas.

“People tend to think of Pilates as a female thing, or it’s for physical therapy, but it was invented by a man and it’s actually a really hard workout,” she said. Vilacoba was certified at Power Pilates in New York after studying dance at NYU. What started out as a way to heal her body became a newly discovered passion, particularly after the birth of her twins put her on bed rest for four months.

“I feel like it really helps people,” she said. “There’s so much to know and learn. I know how it is to feel like you have no strength, but this helps.”

Vilacoba also said the location helps in changing perceptions.

“A Pilates studio as a storefront is pretty unusual. I get a lot of people walking by who stare in because they’ve probably never seen this equipment before,” she said. Some of those curious passers-by have turned into first-timers, and Vilacoba said that most of them are “amazed at how challenging it is.”

Anyone interested in learning more about The Pilates Project can email Sandi Vilacoba at