December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

It’s dawn in the Maryland city of Bethesda, and a dozen people are gathered in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. The aroma of fresh crullers beckons, yet they do not go inside. No, these people drop to the pavement and do push-ups. A woman clutching a doughnut nearly trips over them as she leaves the store. “Don’t eat that!” the group’s leader yells at her as she scurries away. “It’ll make you fat!”

Heckling pastry lovers is all in a day’s work for Patrick Avon, the professional bully behind the Sergeant’s Program, one of the more popular of the increasingly trendy military-style exercise regimens. A chiseled 5’10” and 195 lbs., Avon, 36, recruits out-of-shape lawyers, doctors and homemakers and puts them through a no-frills boot camp straight out of An Officer and a Gentleman. Participants go for 6 a.m. runs in public parks and do pushups in front of fast-food joints, all while being chewed out by Avon or one of his assistants. “You call that running?” Avon yells at one inductee. “Move! Move!”

Hey, that kind of abuse doesn’t come cheap. Avon boasts some 700 clients in the D.C. and Philadelphia areas, half of whom are women and each of whom pays $345 for the three-week boot camp, plus $80 to $120 a month for follow-up workouts. Several local corporations also offer the program to employees, and Avon will expand to Atlanta and Los Angeles next month. His secret: Most people crave his tough-love approach. “They may be disciplined in their work,” says Avon, “but when it comes to their bodies, they have given up.”

Avon, whose book Boot Camp is due out from Simon & Schuster in January, claims a 35 percent dropout rate, compared to nearly twice that for gyms. Sharon Burka, 36, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, lost 16 pounds on the program. “I like its simplicity,” she says. “I just show up and do what they say. It’s the best hour of my day.”

Devotion to Avon runs high among the few, the proud and the formerly flabby, despite the fact that he’s no sergeant. One of four children in a working-class Irish Catholic family from Upstate New York (his parents are divorced), he was, he recalls, “a very unfocused kid.” In 1981, Avon joined the Navy, and five years later he left as a petty officer.

The experience was pivotal, particularly boot camp. “I loved it,” says Avon. “It was cold, tough, fun; I had a great time.” He skipped college, sold insurance and office furniture and searched for his niche, finally finding it in 1989, when he was hired as an instructor for a small-scale military-style workout program based in Rockville, Md.

Two years later Avon was the sole owner of the Sergeant’s Program, which he expanded into a nearly $1-million-a-year operation. “Toughness and discipline break bad habits,” insists Avon. “If you do push-ups in front of Dunkin’ Donuts, you’ll think twice about eating there.”

Beneath the bluster, Avon harbors a secret. “He gets teary-eyed at Christmas music,” says his second wife, Bridgit, 28, an aerobics instructor who works for her husband. (Avon and his first wife divorced in 1993.) Avid vegetarians, the couple recently moved to a Colonial-style house in rural Ijamsville, Md., and love to hang out with their 9-month-old son Isaac. “Patrick’s a real softie,” says Bridgit. “But the military stuff is for real too.”

Of that, there seems no doubt. “I would have loved to have been a real drill sergeant,” admits Avon, who even in his suite of offices in Rockville is always “Sarge.” Recently a client called to discuss an ankle injury he’d suffered while training. “No, you are not a failure!” Avon screamed into the phone. “There are no failures in boot camp! Now get down and give me 20!” The client, a successful lawyer calling from his office, dropped and did exactly that.

Alex Tresniowski

Elizabeth Velez and Mary Esselman in Bethesda

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