Former dry cleaner figured out quickly the one thing he should never do in order to stay popular with Rita’s customers
Rule No. 1 in Fight Club is “Don’t talk about Fight Club.” Rule No. 1 at Rita’s? It’s a little different. “You don’t run out of mango ice,” says Mike Sodi, a multi-unit owner based in Doylestown, PA. Unlike Fight Club, you can talk about the mango ice all you want — the customers certainly do. It’s hands-down Rita’s top-selling flavor of Italian ice, and Sodi has learned over the past 10 years that mango is the one flavor he’d better not ever run out of. This former dry cleaner has actually learned a lot since he bought his first walk-up Rita’s franchise in 2008. He now owns a second walk-up unit in Furlong, PA. This is his story.
How did you jump from dry cleaning into Rita’s?
I was definitely looking for a change from what I had been doing all my life to that point. Rita’s has the reputation, certainly in the Philadelphia region, as being a well-run company. When the opportunity presented itself in my town, I took a chance on it.
What was it about Rita’s that appealed to you?
The seasonality, for one thing. Working with younger employees, whether they’re high school or college. That’s actually a nice side to it.
So, what do you do during the off season?
In the off season, I have some rental properties that I do maintenance on. Besides closing down stores and reopening stores, which takes weeks on both ends of the business, that pretty much occupies my spare time.
You knew about Rita’s because you’re from the area. What is it that you think sets Rita’s apart from the competition?
We do have competition in the Philadelphia market, because almost everyone has independent water ice stores that are competing. It is the reputation of the Rita’s company for affordable high quality. There is plenty of cheaper products out there, and ours are maintained to such standards that hopefully people can see the difference. They’re willing to pay a little bit more for quality.
What makes this Italian ice, or water ice as they sometimes call it, taste so good? What makes the custard so good? Why is it better than somebody else’s?
The ice, it requires a fair amount of maintenance, as far as stirring it. We keep our dip boxes at 18 degrees to 20 degrees, where an independent might have it zero, five degrees. They just hard freeze theirs and scrape it until it’s gone, which could be days or weeks. Ours is good for almost two days from the time you make it, and you have to stir it every 30 minutes. The consistency should be the same no matter what store you go to. If you go to a Rita’s, you should be getting the same consistently good product.
What’s your personal favorite menu item right now?
I’m pretty much old school. I like lemon ice or chocolate custard. They’re my two favorites.
You were talking earlier about working with young people in your store. What do you find rewarding about working with the young people?
Most of them want to learn, and are willing to learn. You seem to get a high quality employee for the type of job it is. Some of the employees that I have will eventually go on to be high-ranking executives in companies or doctors and lawyers. You have them before they have gotten to that point. Some of them are very bright, so it’s quite a variety of employees we wind up with.
What does your staffing look like at the height of the season? How many people might you have in each location?
The Doylestown location would have 25 employees. The Furlong, probably 12 to 15. You certainly need them when you hit the peak days. On a rainy day, you could be calling people off, and they know it. That is the business.
You must get validation calls from time to time from people looking into buying a Rita’s. If a prospective candidate calls you, what would you tell them in terms of why is Rita’s a good investment?
Why buy a Rita’s now?
Compared to some of the other businesses out there, it is generally a fun atmosphere that you’re working in with kids or younger people. The customers that come to the window, as I explain to my kids that work for me on the Treat Team, you’re not going to find people any nicer. I’d say 99 out of 100 people that come to the window have a smile on their face or are positive when they come up to the window. They know what they’re going to get. You just want to keep it that way. You want them to leave with a smile on their face. There aren’t a lot of businesses out there like that.
What kind of qualities does a person need to have in order to be successful with Rita’s?
To be successful, you will need to certainly know your trading area, your territory. You want to interact with the guests at the window or the Treat Team members. Just give them a little guidance when they need it, and stay on top of it to make sure it’s run the way it’s supposed to be run. There is a physical aspect to it. It is not a “sit down and run it from your office on a computer” kind of business. You have to be the type of person that is open to physical labor.
What kind of support can you count on from corporate?
The people at corporate do give you all kinds of support. They are here to help you. The times that I’ve needed something, you get the answers right away or someone gets right back to you. It’s not like you’re out on an island somewhere. Over the years, the support has been excellent.
Can you tell me what your typical day looks like?
A typical day would be going in to one of my stores, which would be Furlong, and making ice to start with, checking products. Just trying to get it ready for the manager to come. And going to my other store, making ice at that store, getting it ready to open, and then I would be there with the first employees showing up. From there, another employee will be added in another hour or two, and then the day gets going to where by mid-afternoon, I could have three employees there with me, and we’re getting ready for the nighttime rush, so to speak.
What time do you start your day and what time do you end your day?
The day will start at probably around 9 in the morning. It will end whenever I’m not needed anymore. It could be 11 o’clock at night, or it could be I’m coming home at 6 for dinner if I have manager and coverage.
What are your busiest times at your stores?
The busiest time we get is usually 7 to 9. We call that rush hour. It can also get busy at 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock. During school, we call that the after-school rush. In the summer, we call it the after-pool rush.
Do you have a lot of interaction with other franchise owners? Is there a support network there?
Yes. The other Rita’s owners in our area, we all know each other. We do loan products to each other, as needed, because it’s almost impossible to predict weather a week ahead. You will be running out of something several times during the season. Fortunately, a few phone calls to local Rita’s owners, and usually you can get what you need until your supplies come in, and vice versa. I’ll get calls, people asking me if I have extra this or that. We help each other out.
How do you feel about the direction of the brand right now?
I am pretty optimistic. I met and listened to our new CEO recently at a co-op meeting. She definitely sounds like she has it together as far as what is needed on a store level. I’m a lot more optimistic than I’ve been in many years, actually, after hearing her talk.
What’s your long-term plan?
Long-term, I will be downsizing at some point. I would probably want to run the medium volume store, which is much easier. At some point, when it’s time to downsize, I will sell the busier store.
If you had to give a prospective candidate one piece of advice about this business, what would it be?
Just be prepared to do some physical labor, and basically just enjoy working with your employees.
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