Rita’s Franchise Review: Harry Jones of Suwanee, GA

Professional caterer finds Rita’s catering has been key to his success

As the longtime owner of Katie’s Catering in the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee, Georgia, Harry Jones is no stranger to the foodservice business. So when he was looking for a side business around 2007 and attended a Rita’s Italian Ice Franchise seminar in Atlanta, it seemed like an ideal choice. Today, Harry owns a Rita’s near his catering business and is the president of the Franchisee Advisory Council. In this Rita’s franchise review, he talks about his journey to ownership and what it takes to succeed.

HARRY JONES

What was it about Rita’s that made you think this would be a good fit with your primary business?

The product itself is just outstanding, and that’s really what we got hooked on. The Suwanee shop was the first Rita’s shop in the state of Georgia, and it’s still the only shop in the state that’s owned by the original owner.

I know one of the things you do with your Rita’s is a lot of catering. How has that affected your business?
Yeah, we do a significant amount of catering for Rita’s. We specifically go out and target the market in terms of Facebook posts, and on my Katie’s Catering menu, the back page is dedicated to Rita’s. So we do a lot of flyers that we pass out at all of the lunches we do.

It’s incredibly easy to add this revenue stream to your Rita’s if you have the systems in place going into it, so you have a game plan and a pricing structure. Rita’s really did a tremendous job this year of setting guidelines and standards. They actually hired an outside consultant for the first time to look at what everyone’s doing and to put a standard catering practice in place. And so for the first time ever, you literally can use the tools that Rita’s provides and grow your business to suit that catering participation.

Do you have an estimate of what percentage of revenue your catering provides?
So far, year-to-date, our catering represents 5% of my total bid.

Have you been doing catering all along with Rita’s or is it a new line for you?
We have. That literally was my background. And so I think we always thought that being in an outlying market, you have to do what the customer wants if you’re going to be successful. So, when we had an opportunity to do catering in-shop or people wanted us to come out to their location, we figured out how we were going to make that happen. It’s my responsibility to try to make sure that my shop was successful. Especially in an outlying market.

What kinds of events do people hire Rita’s to cater?
We’ve done everything from anniversaries to doctors offices.

How do you feel right now about the direction of the brand?
Overall from a marketing perspective and an operations perspective, I think this is the best that I’ve seen it in 12 years.

The senior leadership team really has a vision of where they want to go and how they want to get there. Linda Chadwick, the CEO, comes from a franchising background. She understands that for Rita’s to make money, the shops have to make money.

I understand you’re the president of the Franchisee Advisory Council. Can you tell me a little bit about how that council is structured and what you do?
The board itself is made up of nine franchisees that are elected by their peers to be the representatives of the franchisees to the franchising company. But we’re also advisors to the company. When there’s new marketing material or something new in operations, they don’t just change it. We are kind of like the beta testers; we get the first look at it. That way we can tell if we need to add or enhance something to make it work better for franchise owners, and corporate will listen and take our suggestions under advisement.

How much interaction do you have with other franchisees who are not on the council? How much chance do they get to provide feedback?
As much as or as little as they want. We have an intranet, a CoolNet franchisee website, and all of the FAC’s phone numbers and emails are listed on there.

So, if someone has an issue or a problem, all people have to do is pick up the phone and call and let me know, hey, this is an issue, this is a problem. It would be difficult for us to call 575 franchise shop locations and ask them how things are going, but if they have a question or a problem, they should pick up a phone and call someone.

What kind of experience does someone need to be successful with a Rita’s?
I don’t think you necessarily have to have any specific type of experience. I do think you have to be able and willing to work hard, though. I am a firm believer that Rita’s is a hands-on business, not an investment business.

When you first start off, you have to work in your business. No matter what your business is, if it’s consumer-related, people want to know that the owner’s there.

From a customer perspective, what is it that draws customers to Rita’s? Consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to frozen treats. Why Rita’s? Why do they come?
I think there’s two main reasons. The primary one is the product’s terrific, and the No. 1 reason why my shop is so successful is that we have a tremendous team of young women and men who treat the people how they want to be treated. So they get terrific service, and let’s face it, the consumer is always going to go where they get something they want and they’re treated right.

What would you say makes Rita’s a good investment as opposed to another brand?
Again, I have to go back to the product. The product itself is just terrific.

And knowing what you know now, if you were just starting out today, would you still become a Rita’s Franchisee? If so, why?
Yes. I would. People love dessert, right? So they feel like it is a reward when they treat themselves and I think that of all the other dessert companies, I really, truly believe that we have the best product in the marketplace.

Is there anything else you think a prospective owner should know?
You have to be hands-on, and I think it’s important when you open a business, no matter what the business is, it’s imperative that you keep your build-out costs in line.

Learn more about the Rita’s opportunity

If you’d like to learn more about Rita’s, we’d love to hear from you. Please fill out the form on this page to access our Franchise Information Center, where you can find detailed financial results, a breakdown of startup costs and in-depth Q&As with Rita’s franchisees. You can also discover more about our brand by exploring our website.

Rita’s franchisee found ‘love at first bite’

Lawyer Maria Finley who opens first Rita’s franchise in state of Louisiana featured in local newspaper

Two women, one in a pink dress and another holding a toddler, read a “Coming Soon” sign in the front door of a new Rita’s. Signage above the store reads, “Rita’s Italian Ice | Creamery.”

Attorney Maria Finley was a new empty-nester who was ready to move away from her hometown of Baton Rouge and start a new chapter in her life in Washington, D.C. That was before a Rita’s Blue Raspberry Italian Ice stopped her in her tracks.

As Finley told “The Advocate,” one bite was all it took to put her on a whole new path. Today, she is the proud owner of the first Rita’s franchise in the state of Louisiana. “The Advocate,” which featured Finley recently, wrote in part:

Four summers ago, Maria A. Finley, a Louisiana attorney, packed her things and was prepared to move to Washington, D.C. Her children had all grown up, and she was ready for a fresh start.

After touring Georgetown University with her son and his friend, the trio visited a Rita’s Italian Ice. For Finley, it was love at first bite.

“I got the blue raspberry and I tasted it, and I mean, literally within two or three minutes I called my realtor and said, ‘Take my house off the market. I’m coming back to Louisiana and opening a Rita’s Italian Ice franchise,’” Finley said.

With that blue raspberry, Finley picked up on something a lot of people have known about Rita’s for more than three decades — it’s delicious.

What Rita’s offers franchisees

Italian ice and frozen custard are our two core products, comprising part of virtually everything we sell. That helps keep our food costs really low. Our simple business model gives franchisees the opportunity to run a profitable business, and our mobile units and catering offer additional streams of revenue and a simple way to expand the business.

Rita’s is a happy business, where guests come in excited with anticipation and leave even happier than when they arrived. With no cooking involved, it’s easier to find, train and retain labor — and also easier to scale up quickly.

Her seasonal franchise is open year-round

As for Finley, she’s loving her new life as a Rita’s franchisee. She opened her shop in October 2018 and added a mobile unit in May. While many Rita’s franchisees in the northeast close their shops during winter months, in Baton Rouge, where January’s high temps average around 60, there’s no need to completely shut down in winter. And the community is loving it. “The Advocate” wrote:

“The response has been wonderful,” Finley said. “The secret is to get it in their mouths. And that’s part of the excitement that makes me so happy to have brought this franchise to Louisiana — practically every person I see taste it gets this amazing look on their face.”

Finley is well aware that Louisiana’s frozen treat of choice is the sno-ball, but she doesn’t make it a point in comparing the two.

“If somebody wants a sno-ball, they’re going to go get themselves a sno-ball,” she said. “I just try to get people to taste our Italian ices that we make fresh in the store almost every day. I don’t knock sno-balls, but we are definitely an alternative when someone wants a frozen treat. I just leave it up to them to decide after that.”

Own a Rita’s franchise

Find out how you can become a Rita’s franchisee by exploring our research pages or filling out the form on this page. We look forward to hearing from you!