Cooling power

Rita’s em­ploy­ee Dana Dascenzo reaches for a cup of mango wa­ter ice. Even dur­ing the winter months, some Rita’s loc­a­tions, such as this one on Street Road, are open for busi­ness. JENNY SWI­GODA / TIMES PHOTO

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 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

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