Gaining Steam

John Pederson’s Mobile 612 Sauna Society takes the tradition on tour around the Twin Cities

Photo By David J. Turner

Thanks to Minnesota’s strong Finnish roots, saunas are a familiar north woods tradition. But entrepreneur John Pederson aims to make it a regular part of city life, too, with his mobile sauna club, the 612 Sauna Society. Having debuted last winter at the Great Northern Festival, 612 partners with local businesses to post up at spots around the Cities. It’s based on a co-op model (a $200 lifetime membership includes discounts, priority access, and a share in the organization), but the sauna opens up for public events as well.

“I had a fellowship in college to study in Helsinki. The scholarship committee picked me up at the airport and took me straight to the community sauna. It wasn’t just an intro to sauna; it was an introduction to a society where sauna was a regular part of social and physical health. Seeing the way it weaved into people’s daily lives, then weaved into my daily life—it planted the seed.”

“I built a mobile sauna in 2014, called the Firehouse, and opened it up to family and friends. They started bringing their friends, and suddenly people were coming over for sauna almost every night. A great community started to form. That’s where the 612 Sauna Society started, in my backyard at that sauna.”

“I started thinking about how to make this sustainable.”

I wanted to scale it up without losing what had made it special to start with: the community, the gatherings. One of the things for me was the sense of ownership and the sense of involvement. With the co-op model, I could scale that sense of ownership. Members don’t come as customers; they come as owners to share their sauna with their friends. One of our staff members is always on hand to do things like regulate the temperature and ensure everyone is comfortable, but it’s really hosted by the members, so it changes the types of interactions and conversations. It gets it out of the transactional model.”

“Bathing suits are required, and sauna etiquette is always to ask before you put steam on. It gives people a chance to adjust where they’re sitting—it’s cooler lower—or to step out of the sauna. It’s a small space, so general courtesies go a long way. Phones aren’t allowed by our rules, but also they would just melt.”

“We have temporary-use permits for our pop-ups, and the city’s been very collaborative. We had Minneapolis and St. Paul mayors Betsy Hodges and Chris Coleman tour the sauna during the Great Northern Festival. It’s something that’s been a part of Minnesota since before it was Minnesota. It’s a tradition of this land, this climate, this environment. So it’s wonderful that our public officials have embraced it.”

“There are so many health benefits to sauna, from the quiet time to the benefits that stem from increased circulation. People also think sauna is about getting hot, but it’s just as much about cooling off. That’s why the cold rinse is important. When we’re too hot or too cold, we’re so used to turning up the AC or putting on a down coat, but humans have the ability to control our own temperature internally—we just don’t use it because of modern conveniences. So sauna activates the thermoregulatory system. Jumping into a lake is definitely preferable in my book, but we have an outdoor shower to cool off between rounds.”

“The famous Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson was in town for an event at the American Swedish Institute. My friend Scott Pollock is ASI’s director, and he suggested bringing him over. I said, ‘That would be great! I’m sure he’d love a sauna after all these events.’ Kicking back with him after his circuit was a reminder that sauna is a great equalizer. Everybody is the same on the bench.”