Rita’s Water Ice fanatics can now enjoy their favorite sweet treat all year round.
Rita’s is to water ice like Famous Amos was to cookies.
Others sold the cool fruity summer treat long before former Philadelphia firefighter Bob Tumolo opened his first stand on Bristol Pike across from the old Woodhaven Mall in 1984 and named it after his wife.
But nobody ever sold as much water ice or marketed it in as many different and remote places as Rita’s has over the last 27 years.
That unrivaled brand identification comes with a small price, however. Even today, four years after the franchiser opened its first corporate-owned walk-in store on Street Road at Mechanicsville Road in Bensalem, folks still view Rita’s as a summer phenomenon.
From years of experience, folks know that the stands open with much fanfare in March, handing out free cups of water ice to all, and close for the fall and winter come October.
But local denizens and those who live near almost 200 other locations around the country don’t have to wait until after next Groundhog Day to get their Rita’s fix. And by visiting the so-called Cool University location, patrons can also partake in several new, unique treats that aren’t available anywhere else on the planet, according to Jamie Snyder, the store’s GM.
“People still come in (during winter) and say, ‘You probably think I’m crazy for coming in for ice cream,’” said Snyder, noting that Rita’s custard products tend to gain in popularity relative to water ice during colder months.
“We just want to let people know that we’re open year-round. In this Philadelphia market, they know Rita’s as being seasonal.”
There are more than 550 Rita’s locations throughout the country, most on the East Coast. But the franchiser has continued to branch into new territories on the strength of its slam-dunk product appeal from taste and affordability standpoints, as well as the support offered by the mother company to its partners.
Among those, about 190 are walk-in locations and open year-round, while 40 of those also have walk-up windows in the traditional Rita’s fashion. The company continues to expand its influence in Florida and is starting to make hay in other warm-weather states including Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
Each year, dozens of new locations open, while dozens more change ownership. Most of those new franchisees spend a week at the Street Road location to learn the ins and outs of the business under the tutelage of Snyder and the corporate staff.
Two of those new partners are Bob and Marcy Kabolowsky, who recently acquired a Rita’s in Boca Raton, Fla.
“I was looking for business opportunities and I came across Rita’s and liked the product,” Bob Kabolowsky said. “As I learned more about the company, I saw there’s a lot of corporate support and community involvement. And being in South Florida, obviously the Italian ice works well. We have a lot of people from the north (living) there.”
Although the “water ice” terminology has yet to migrate with the population, the appreciation for it has transferred well.
“They call it ‘Italian ice,’ but we’re changing that,” Marcy Kabolowsky said.
“It’s funny how you go places and people recognize the red and white striped awning,” Snyder said.
“Going forward we know that stores are going to be in the warmer climate. It makes sense for them to be open all year-round. By building indoor facilities, they can offer (our) products year-round.”
So the nation’s gain is also Northeast Philly’s gain.
“We’re definitely a retail site. A lot of people don’t even realize we have a corporate (training) site. It’s definitely a store first,” Snyder said of the Street Road location.
Like other Rita’s, the store has 10 to 15 water ice flavors available at any given time.
Sadly, despite its corporate status, the store does not provide patrons with advance tasting of new flavors. All of that is done by a research and development committee, which works with the company’s syrup providers to invent new formulas.
Last year, for instance, cantaloupe and honeydew were introduced as “LTOs” or limited time offers. They may be reintroduced next year or maybe not. Similarly, seasonal offerings include pumpkin and cranberry cream pie, which are available. The suggestions can come from corporate employees, franchisees or patrons.
“It can be fruity. It can be a dessert-like flavor. It can be like candy,” Snyder said. “If they can make a mix out of it, we’ll try it. A lot of people will taste it.”
Some pass the committee, but still don’t pass the greatest test of all, public sensibility.
“Grape we tried a couple times, but it just didn’t do well for us. And banana split cream was a retiree,” Snyder said. “All the stores can make whatever they want each day. In the Philadelphia market, chocolate is a huge seller, but in some other states, they can’t give it away.”
Rita’s does offer some one-of-a-kind products on Street Road, too. Patrons can purchase rarely seen milkshakes, cakes and custard cookie sandwiches recently developed by the company.
All have tie-ins to readily available custards.
“We want to make sure we’re using the products that are currently in the store and we also want (to test) new products for those stores that are open year-round,” Snyder said. ••
Visit www.ritasice.com or the Rita’s Facebook page for information about the franchise and its locations.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org