A cool tradition

Jeff Moody, who was re­cently ap­poin­ted CEO of Rita’s Wa­ter Ice, sits down for a Q&A with the North­east Times.

Sweet treats: Rita’s Wa­ter Ice CEO Jeff Moody gets a spoon­ful of the com­pany’s new­est fla­vor, dulce de leche, at its Tre­vose loc­a­tion. TED BOR­DE­LON / TIMES PHOTO

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. ••

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