Rita’s Franchise Review: Tom Kowal of Central New Jersey (Hunterdon County)

Multi-unit franchisee turned Rita’s into a family enterprise. See how he grew from fresh college graduate to multi-unit owner.

Rita’s branded cups of Italian ice

Owning multiple Rita’s franchises may be the smarter investment.

Tom Kowal owns four walk-up Rita’s Italian Ice units: a stand-alone in Clinton, NJ, that he purchased in 2006; an end-cap location in Flemington, NJ, which he acquired in 2011; and his third and fourth locations in Whitehouse Station and Stewartsville, NJ, which he has owned since 2014 and 2015 respectively.

“You really enjoy economies of scale at this level,” Kowal says. “Your payroll’s pretty low, your cost of goods is pretty low, and when it comes to food, it’s less perishable than most items. The shelf life is pretty good and you could get up and running with minimal overhead.”

Read about how Kowal got his start, and what’s next, in this Rita’s franchise review.

How did you first learn about Rita’s and how did you first come to this idea that you might want to be a Rita’s Franchisee?
It was kind of a family thing, I guess you could say. My aunt and uncle actually owned a shop in Bridgewater, and when they were going to build their Bridgewater shop, which is their first shop, it was 2003 and I was in college. Over my Christmas break I was like, “Look, I don’t have a summer job. If you want help I could help you out.” And they said, “Yeah, why don’t you come with me to this Rita’s six-day franchise training school” and I said alright. And the plan was they were going to get built out in the summer and I would come home for summer break and help them run the shop. As we know, construction delays happen and they couldn’t get up and running for the summer.

I went to the shop in Flemington, which I now own, to talk to the then-owner and said, “Hey, I have this training, can I help you out?” and he said, “Sure.” I started there making $5.15 an hour, which was minimum wage back then. After some time, he gave me the keys and I became a manager. Once my uncle and aunt were up and running, I went between the two shops helping them both and then the same thing the following year.

How did you make the leap to ownership?
Senior year comes around I don’t know what I want to do, like every other senior graduate. That winter, my mom saw an ad for the Clinton Rita’s for sale in a local newspaper. I’m thinking, hey, I’m 21, how am I going to buy a Rita’s? And my mom said, “Well if you don’t go talk to them, you’re never going to find out.”

I basically walked out of college and within a couple of weeks we closed the deal. I knew that doing one shop with a loan wouldn’t sustain the quality of life that I wanted, so I started looking at multiple locations.

Is your family involved in your Rita’s operations?
My mom and sister are both heavily involved in the business. We also have a stationary cart in a Little League complex and we have a mobile trailer. So we can do events at skating rinks. It really all builds on itself.

So are you able to meet your business goals with the units that you have now?
We are able to meet our business goals with each individual store. Every year we determine where growth opportunities exist and focus our efforts with a new strategy and a new set of goals. Our shops reached mature levels but we believe there is always room to grow and increase sales. This year we are discussing an adding another shop to our business portfolio.

What do you like best about being a Rita’s franchise owner?
It is a fun job. I mean, you’re dealing with people in a fun atmosphere. For the most part they’re not coming in with any issues. They’re coming to enjoy themselves, and you’re providing a way for them to do that. Making people happy is always awesome, even though there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of people underestimate that.

What does corporate offer in terms of support? How do they help you with your franchise marketing strategy?
They are pretty committed to helping out the franchisee with support. I also have had some really good Franchise Business Consultants who’ll do anything they can to help you. Their goals and their bonuses are all tied to our performance, so they’re incentivized to help us work toward our goals.

Do you talk to other franchisees out there. Do you get support from your fellow owners?
Yeah, everyone around me. We are a community of franchisees and are like a family to one another. It really comes down to, “Hey, I forgot to order this” or “I ran out of this other stuff, can I borrow a case or a sleeve of cups” or whatever and we try to help each other out because I’ll rub your back if you rub mine.

Rita’s provides a lot of support at all levels to their franchisees. We have an online forum exclusive to Rita’s for communicating with other franchisees.

What kind of person do you think would be successful as a Rita’s franchise owner?
I think somebody who’s outgoing and understands people and somebody that really just has good moral character. You’re dealing with people all the time, and you want to have just the right head on your shoulders to deal with them. Make sure you’re focusing on your guests, making them happy.

So if it’s the middle of summer, what does your typical day look like?
For me now, because I have four locations and I can’t be in all of them at once, I have to have four managers. So somebody is there handling the daily operations and I’m typically coordinating with my mom or my sister, who’s a general manager, for what all has to go on in the day. Planning out orders, inventory, marketing stuff, do we have any events coming up? Looking at the week as a whole if we can, up to the weekend. Because every day is different and every shop is different. The shop in Clinton is on a major highway, so at rush hour we’re dead. For the shop in Flemington, rush hour is busy because everyone’s right out of work and we’re right out where they are.

Two hands hold up three Rita’s branded cups of Italian ice against a backdrop of green bushes with a pink hibiscus blossom on the upper left-hand side.

Superior product and a proven business model make Rita’s a win-win for consumers and investors alike.

What is it that’s bringing customers into Rita’s? Why do your customers love Rita’s?
It’s definitely the product. Frozen custard is not the same as soft-serve ice cream, it’s superior.

So, soft serve ice cream you can make in many different ways. Whether it’s a powder and water concentrate and you mix it together, or just using a liquid premix that maybe has high sugar, low butterfat. Whereas frozen custard has a higher level of butterfat so it is richer, it is creamier. Custard has a little bit of egg in the process to give it the custard flavor. The Italian ice flavors are simple and delicious and the kids come back because they love it, especially our Swedish Fish and Cotton Candy flavors.

We just have a decent combination of frozen treats you can make out of our ice and our custard that everyone can enjoy.

Tom, if you were just starting out today, knowing what you know now, would you still become a Rita’s franchisee?
Yes. From an investment standpoint, I’d still do a Rita’s because I think the investment is still worth it.

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Rita’s Franchise Review: Rob Tarr of Fairhope, AL

Coast Guard veteran and former nuclear engineer shifts gears to an exciting new career as Alabama’s first multi-unit franchisee

A mango and watermelon Italian ice in a Rita’s branded cup is surrounded by wedges of watermelon and slices of mango.

Frozen treats of every kind are welcome in the Alabama heat, which is why Rob Tarr decided to become a multi-unit developer for Rita’s Italian ice.

As a self-described military brat, Rob Tarr grew up all over the country, never really attaching to one particular place. Alabama became a frequent destination for Rob and his family when Rob’s parents retired in the beachfront community of Fairhope, AL. “Every time we’d come down to visit, our love for the Georgia-Alabama area grew steady and strong with each visit.We love the people here. It’s a great place to be,” Tarr says. “So we invested in some property. “And every time they visited, his wife, Debra, who grew up in the Philadelphia area where Rita’s is based, suggested a Rita’s franchise would fit very well in the area. In 2014, the couple decided to stop dreaming and take action, opening their first location in Foley, AL. Two more followed, in Fairhope and Gulf Shores, AL. In this Rita’s franchise review, Rob Tarr talks about the journey – and his vision about what’s next.

What made you decide on Rita’s?
From our point of view, it made sense. It’s a very good-quality product, and to be in a beach resort community, especially in the South where it gets pretty hot, an Italian ice and frozen custard franchise screamed a need for the area and for us a very solid investment.

Tell me a little about what you were doing before joining Rita’s, and a little about your military experience before that.
I was working in the nuclear industry. I was a Safety System Engineer. Previously, I was in the Coast Guard, from 1984 through 1996, where I did some law enforcement and some vessel safety boardings. I was also an officer, so I led groups of people, sometimes up to 30 people at a time, in different tasks.

Have the skill sets you learned in the military helped you in your role as a Rita’s multi-unit owner?
Yes, they have. I had to lead groups of people to complete certain assignments or missions when I was in the military, and now I’m running a company where we’re up to about 50 employees in the summertime. Essentially, I’m transferring that leadership training into multi-unit operations and small business management.

A Rita’s cup of frozen custard is covered in rainbow sprinkles on one side and chocolate sprinkles on the other.

When your wife was talking about how Rita’s would be such a good brand for the Fairhope area, did you ever consider other brands?
No, not really, because we were so drawn to the brand of Rita’s itself. We felt like, because of the quality of the product, we didn’t want to look at anything else, and we just weren’t interested in other brands. Rita’s quality was enough that it made us want to go that route.

And how have the stores gone over in those communities?
We’ve identified that there are some challenges to doing something like this. We’re going into a new market and trying to expose the public to a new brand. But we’re overcoming those, and our sales have been increasing steadily.

How have you been introducing the wonders of Italian ice and frozen custard to Southerners who may not be used to those things?
Our marketing campaign involves a billboard, but the biggest bang for our buck is that we’re also operating at condominiums on the beach. And so we sell our product poolside on the beach in Gulf Shores. That’s been a great way to introduce people to our products, especially when you’re sitting on the hot beach, and a cool Rita’s treat is right there near you. It’s very refreshing.

What are some of the valuable things HQ does to support you, both as a franchise owner and as an Area Developer?
They do a very good job with supporting us in operations and marketing. We always have everything we need, as far as operations – if we have a problem with our system or equipment, we have plenty of people ready to help us at a moment’s notice. The other thing is, the marketing team does a superb job in helping us with the direct marketing with the displays, billboards, brochures and handouts that we have at our stores. They have a lot of selections for how we can market our business.

Are you open year-round in your locations?
We do close temporarily at the beach for only about one month. Our store front locations operate year-round and stay open.

What does your typical day look like? Are you spending time in each store, or are you focused right now on the development of more Alabama territories?
Yeah, I do spend a little bit of time in the stores and more time out in the field engaging with communities and determining development opportunities for new markets. I work closely with the corporate folks on educating onboarding franchisees. I love sharing what I know about opening a new store. I recently welcomed our two newest Alabama franchisees that are on track to open their stores in the summer of 2019 in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa by the University of Alabama. We are working hard to generate leads and welcome more franchises in Alabama. Then, we can really leverage our marketing efforts and brand exposure as a group.

My personal feeling is, Alabama is a goldmine for a franchise, because we have a cool, quality product for a very hot climate. Franchise interest in Alabama has significantly increased, and several prospective single- and multi-unit franchisees are working through the process to become Rita’s franchisees. There are still great territories left, so if anyone is interested in opening their own Rita’s, they should go to www.ownaritas.com.

What kind of person do you think would be successful with Rita’s? Are there certain characteristics you look for? Are veterans a good fit?
What we typically find are people who are looking to start their own business that is a solid investment. You don’t have to have business experience, because the franchise provides extensive support. That’s one of the benefits to franchising. We just want somebody who is outgoing and enjoys putting smiles on kids’ faces. That’s the best way to put it. It’s fun to watch people come in and try it for the first time and see their faces light up. So if you like putting smiles on people’s faces, this is the business for you.

And yeah, I believe veterans do very well in this kind of environment, because they are typically hard-working, driven and well-trained to be professionals. Also, veterans get a 50% discount on their initial franchise fees. That’s a very big savings. That’s very beneficial.

How large do you hope to grow your own unit number?
Our goal is to have 15 stores.

Since you and your wife are both working in the business, are you meeting your business goals or on your way to meeting your goals right now?
We are growing and thriving and are excited about the onboarding of Rita’s new CEO, Linda Chadwick, and the direction the company is taking. We’re close to launching many Rita’s in this area.

Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you would want prospective franchisees to know about?
It’s a growing market, it’s a growing franchise, and now is a very good time to get in.

Read more Rita’s franchise reviews

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