There is perhaps no frozen treat that quite says “summer” like Rita’s Water Ice. The Trevose-based company, which is officially named “Rita’s Italian Ice” has been bringing its mission of “happiness” to the greater Philadelphia region for almost 30 years, after Bob Tumolo, a former Philadelphia firefighter, began the now well-known brand with his mother.
Rita’s has since expanded from its modest beginnings. Its franchises now grace both coasts and, soon, there will be Rita’s stands in China and Canada. The Tumolos sold Rita’s in 2005, and it is now managed by an investment firm, Falconhead Capital, which recently appointed Jeff Moody, an industry vet, to the helm as CEO.
The Northeast Times had the chance to sit down with Moody, who has held senior positions with KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut. We asked how he’s adjusting to the frozen treat industry, what a China-based Rita’s will look like and, of course, what new flavors will be in store next year.
Northeast Times: How do you like your new role as CEO?
Jeff Moody: I love it. Rita’s is a very unique brand with phenomenal growth potential. It’s very well known here but the vast majority of the stores are in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey so really it’s a new concept outside of that geography.
NET: Had you tried Rita’s before being asked to consider this?
JM: No, actually. I was contacted by a recruiter and I’d never been to one so I actually didn’t go to one until I had an interview set up. That was one of the key things before moving forward in the process — you have to make sure you like the product.
NET: How do you plan to maintain the integrity of the brand’s humble roots?
JM: One, you have to get the right franchise partners. People who are committed to quality. You have to inspect the restaurants because the chain is only as strong as the weakest link so you have to make sure that every franchisee is adhering to quality standards. You can’t sell old ice. The whole brand is built around happiness and simple treats. Corporations sometimes use fancy lines and very business school-sounding things — our business is treats and our mission is happiness.
NET: You sound like Willy Wonka.
JM: You know this whole thing is about bringing a smile to people’s faces. It’s the belief that if it’s hot out and you’ve had a bad day you can get a little custard and ice. I think that’s the way to keep it humble, to keep true to the mission, which is serving customers.
NET: Have you picked a favorite flavor yet?
JM: The Swedish Fish is terrific. There’s a section of candy flavors based on Starburst and Sour Patch that has kid appeal but some adults that grew up with those things like it too. My problem is I like all of them.
NET: I didn’t really like the Swedish Fish flavor.
JM: Really? You didn’t like that? Everybody has their flavor and that’s the great part about Rita’s. We have 65 flavors, and they’re not all there at the same time but we rotate through them so you’re going to find something you like.
NET: My favorite was definitely Twisted Melon but I think you guys got rid of that. (Editor’s note: It was later revealed that Twisted Melon has been renamed Honeydew and has since been selling better.)
JM: That must have preceded me. I wasn’t aware of that. I’ll have to make a note of it.
NET: I read that Rita’s now might be expanding into China?
JM: We’re almost ready to open in China, we’ve got a couple stores ready to open and we’ve also got agreements in Canada and Aruba.
NET: Would a Rita’s in China look or taste any different than a Rita’s in America?
JM: No, it’ll look the same; it’ll taste the same. The one thing we’ll need to develop is some new flavors in addition to the core flavors. Sometimes, there are different fruits, for example, in Asia, so they’ll be incremental flavors but it will still be the same core product. They put shrimp on pizza there before they did it here, you know. There are just some local customs. We won’t be doing a shrimp-flavored ice.
NET: I was gonna say…
JM: I have not yet seen what flavors they want to open with but I don’t think we’ll develop any customized flavors for the core opening.
NET: Your brand is really only marketable in the summer so in the winter what goes on at Rita’s?
JM: Well, it definitely peaks in the summer but it does have year-round potential. We have some stores in malls even in the colder climates. We have them in California now and Arizona so we’re also moving into parts of the country where the climate is conducive more to stores that are open all year-round. So we’re moving to more of a mix — some will be seasonal and some will be year-round. Even the year-round ones in the warm weather tend to peak in the summer.
NET: How much do you think you’ll expand in the next year or two years?
JM: We definitely plan on increasing the rate of new stores dramatically. We plan to increase that every year until they’re everywhere.
NET: You’ve worked for a lot of fast food companies, are you a big fast food fan yourself?
JM: Yeah, I am. My kids are grown up now so you kind of go through the cycles where they like different things although we’ve never lived in an area with Rita’s. I’m new to Philadelphia. I grew up in Maine and lived in Kentucky for the most part for the last 16 years.
NET: Not to use a pun but you have a pretty “cool” job.
JM: Absolutely. It’s got its challenges like any business. The frozen treat business is very competitive and we’re trying to grow fast and grow smart so it’s challenging from that perspective but it’s definitely fun.
NET: Are there any challenges with keeping prices reasonable?
JM: We have a premium product. The prices haven’t gone up dramatically but the other fast food guys make normal prices seem higher because people are used to seeing 99-cent deals.
NET: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to tip your hand on new flavors for next year.
JM: We’re in development on a bunch. There’s a process, so next week we have focus groups where we’re going to try 15 flavors with consumers. I haven’t been here long enough to know what the dropout rates are on 15 flavors, though, so we’ll see. ••