Rita’s Franchisee Review: Mike Sodi of Doylestown, PA

Former dry cleaner figured out quickly the one thing he should never do in order to stay popular with Rita’s customers

An overhead shot shows pink, orange and green ices on a red and white striped blanket laid down over a green patch of grass.

Italian Ice and frozen custard are at the core of every treat we serve, which makes Rita’s unique among frozen dessert franchises.


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.
A tall swirl of chocolate frozen custard in a cake cone wrapped in a Rita's branded paper wrapper.

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.

Smiling kids dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts are lined up at a Rita’s walk-up window, turning around to face the camera.

Smiling customers, happy Treat Team members — what’s not to love? That’s one reason Mike Sodi is glad he sold his dry-cleaning business and bought a Rita’s franchise.

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.

Read more Rita’s franchisee reviews

If you’d like to hear more from our owners, check out other Rita’s franchisee reviews on our blog. You can also explore more about the Rita’s franchise opportunity on our research pages, or fill out a short, no-obligation form to access to our proprietary Franchise Information Center. We look forward to hearing from you!

Rita’s ranks among best franchises for veterans by Entrepreneur, Military Times

Get a discount on our fees while using your leadership and teamwork skills to become a successful business owner

Our franchise was recently ranked No. 46 among Entrepreneur magazine’s best franchises for veterans. Based on a survey of the top 150 franchise companies for veterans, the rankings took into account discounts for vets and other factors such as franchisee support and where the company ranked among the Franchise 500. We also ranked 36th on Military Times Best Franchises 2018, which rated brands based on criteria including performance, costs, support and company culture.

Transitioning from military service back to civilian life isn’t always seamless. But the skills you acquired as a member of the armed services, such as leadership and how to work effectively as part of a team, are the very skills that will help you become successful as a Rita’s franchisee.

Rita’s Italian Ice is a great franchise for vets because we offer an affordable investment and let you make a living by making other people happy.

A hand holds up a Rita’s branded cup against an American flag against a blue sky with a couple of fluffy white clouds.

You’ve made your country proud. Now, you can make yourself proud by taking the reins of ownership with a Rita’s franchise, which is looking for experienced veterans to invest.

Your skills work in our business model

Rita’s provides you with a simple but proven formula that you can follow to build your own successful business. But we also allow you the freedom to grow your business at your own pace, so you get the best of both worlds. Those teamwork and leadership skills that you honed during your time in the military will be put to good use as you hire your Rita’s Treat Team members.

You’ll teach them how to make our delicious Italian ice in the store every day, and how to make the perfect swirl of frozen custard atop a Gelati. You and any of your full-time managers will learn all the particular facets of running a Rita’s at our corporate headquarters in Trevose, PA, and then you’ll pass along those skills to all the people you’ll hire to work in your Rita’s franchise.

Three Italian Ices in branded Rita’s cups are in flavors colored, from left to right, white, blue and red.

Be on the front lines of happiness. It’s even in our tagline: Ice. Custard. Happiness.

You gave something. Rita’s gives something back.

Serving in the armed forces is a dangerous job, and we appreciate the sacrifices every veteran has made for our nation. We believe veterans should be given special considerations when they get ready to return to civilian life, and to that end we offer financial incentives.

Veterans who qualify as franchise candidates will be eligible for a 50% discount off our $30,000 franchise fee. That’s a significant savings to give you a headstart on making your entrepreneurial dreams come true.

Rita’s startup costs are already accessible, with a startup investment ranging from $150,500 to $440,900. In the business world, especially in the foodservice franchise segment, that’s pretty affordable. Our uncomplicated business model, based on just two core products of Italian Ice and frozen custard, makes Rita’s a great entryway into food franchising.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about the growing Italian ice business opportunity with Rita’s, 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 find more information about our franchise by exploring our research pages.

Higher margins and simple operations help Rita’s owners expand with mobile units, venues

With simple operations and high margins, mobile business and special venues offer Rita’s owners a big Italian ice business opportunity in a small package

Rita’s franchisees can expand their business in a number of ways, like food trucks, Express Units and mobile carts. And the carts offer plenty of room for further growth.

“We’re in a local university with our cart business, and we started with one cart there. Now we have six carts,” says Brett Hrovat, who owns two standalone stores and a cart business in Columbia, SC. “These days, everyone’s taking their food to the customer, and that’s something we’re really doing more of.”

A young girl in glasses and a multi-colored striped shirt sits and blue shorts sits on a bright red bench, enjoying a blue Italian ice in a Rita’s cup.

Mobile business helps franchisees go where the guests are, such as going to a park and serving up refreshing Italian ice on hot summer days.

Mobile and venues help you go where your guests are

With carts or food trucks, you can take your business nearly anywhere, helping expand your business beyond the four walls of your store and reaching Rita’s customers in locations or venues where they’re sure to be craving a refreshing Italian ice or frozen custard.

Any Rita’s franchisee can add mobile carts to their operation. Franchisees can choose to take carts or trucks where the guests are, work with special venues to provide carts as a regular offering to their guests or open fixed-location Express Units in special venues. We have franchisees who operate carts or Express Units in arenas, water parks and youth sports facilities, which can all provide steady business.

By going out to your guests, you can also bring more of them into your storefront. Special venues and mobile business can serve as a valuable marketing tool. Not only do they serve guests in the perfect place for a sweet treat, they also introduce the brand to new guests who can become loyal fans.

“I’m in the football stadium, the baseball stadium, the basketball and hockey arena, which is open and operating all winter, I’m in the zoo and the convention center,” says Philadelphia multi-unit owner Brad Leventhal. “I think it’s a great marketing tool to be in venues.”

It’s also a great way to integrate your business into your neighborhood by hosting or going out to community events, youth sports games and fundraisers for local causes.

“We’ll do special events; we support a lot of local charities. There are three children’s hospitals in the area, so we’ll go out to them and supply ice to the kids,” says Leventhal. “It’s fun and it’s rejuvenating to give back to the community like that.”

Four Rita’s Italian ices are arrayed against a white background. In front is a red ice, to the left is a light green ice, to the right is a yellow ice and in the back is a light blue ice.

A simpler menu helps make carts and special venue locations a lower-cost way for current franchisees to expand their Italian ice business opportunities.

 

Simpler offerings for a high-margin Italian ice business opportunity

Adding mobile units or special venues can be a simpler way to grow for franchisees who want to expand their involvement with our Italian ice business opportunity, but who may not be ready to add an entire new store to their portfolio. For multi-unit owners, it offers a way to diversify their interests without having to explore and invest in a whole new brand.

“One of the nice things is that your store acts as a home base,” says San Jose, CA, franchisee Humza Chowdhry. Chowdhry owns a diverse array of Rita’s locations; he has a standalone Rita’s store, a location in a sports arena, a food truck, a cart in a local water park and he’s opening a kiosk in a shopping mall. “Even if you only have one standalone store, this gives you the opportunity to multiply your revenue streams from that one location.”

You may not even have to hire staff specifically for your carts, instead tapping into the team members you know and trust from your existing stores. Carts have a simplified product offering and low operating costs, which helps you add revenue at a higher profit margin.

“With the mobile carts, the operations really come down to getting the product in the carts and getting it to the next venue,” says Hrovat. “Once you get it there, the execution of the rest is pretty simple. I see higher margins in cart business than in-store business, and if you have multiple stores, it’s much easier to handle inventory and you can schedule your current employees to work the cart business, so it makes staffing a lot easier.”

Learn more about the Rita’s opportunity

If you’d like to learn more about the growing Italian ice business opportunity with Rita’s, 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.

 

Rita’s: A business for all seasons

Whether their Rita’s operates on a seasonal basis or is open year-round, our franchisees are finding ways to meet — and sometimes exceed — their business goals

For customers and franchisees, we believe in choosing what’s right for you. That’s why Rita’s franchises can be open seasonally or year-round, and our franchisees love having options to meet their own personal business goals.

Many Rita’s owners operate from March through November, using the off-season to open an additional Rita’s franchise for the next season or build up their catering revenues. But as we’ve grown, we’ve also helped franchisees who choose to stay open and keep revenue flowing in the winter months. Whichever model you prefer, Rita’s could be a great business opportunity.

Two women in sweaters, jeans and boots face each other over a high-top table while talking and eating cups of frozen custard. A wall behind them is covered in wallpaper adorned with names of Rita’s products, including Blendini, Frozen Custard and Rita’s Italian Ice.

Maureen and Brian Hartlieb are operating one of their Rita’s locations on a year-round basis for the first time in 2017-18. So far, they’ve had a steady stream of appreciative customers.

 

Shorter lines, lower costs

Jill Harp’s Baltimore franchise is open Thursdays through Sundays in the winter months. While she has a full staff of 18 or so at the height of the summer season, her general manager handles all the shifts from November through March.

 

“I just have one unit that I want to grow as much as I can, and the profit margin is really high,” Harp says. “Initially, I thought it would be great to be off a few months out of the year, but a few years in I thought, why not just open a few days during the winter to help cover my fixed costs?”

 

Maureen Hartlieb and her husband Brian own four Rita’s locations in Maryland and part of a Rita’s Food Truck, and they’re excited to try their first year-round location this season. Even on a chilly day in November, a steady stream of customers came in to order treats, a great sign for their new winter hours.

 

“For me, it is going to be a better opportunity to get into a lot of our catering, to reach more people, because we’re going to be open when there are school concerts and other events going on. When they start basketball this winter, we can now be the place that everybody comes to hang out at after games and other events,” she says.

 

A woman’s hand holds up a Rita’s Blendini branded cup against a blue sky filled with white puffy clouds on a sunny day.

When a seasonal Rita’s opens up again in the spring, franchisees almost always report long lines and excited guests waiting to order their favorite Rita’s treat.

 

Flexible footprints offer even more choice

Rita’s offers a variety of different service models to choose from in several affordable investment ranges. Our high levels of franchisee support and ease of operations make our business perfect for both multi-unit and single-unit owners. Rita’s provides you an excellent opportunity to meet your professional goals in a supportive setting and a happy business.

Learn more about the Rita’s opportunity

If you’d like to learn more about the growing Italian ice business opportunity with Rita’s, 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.

Rita’s Franchisee Review: Albert Holley of Maryland

Former high school coach returns to his entrepreneurial dreams with Rita’s Italian Ice franchises

Wife and husband Melissa and Albert Holley stand smiling with their arms around each other in front of their walk-up windows at night. A banner over their heads is branded with the Rita’s logo and reads, “Open for the Season on March 1st.”

Rita’s franchisee Albert Holley and his wife, Dr. Melissa Holley, enjoyed a very successful first season with their Windsor Mill, MD, Rita’s location, increasing sales by 25% over the previous owner’s last season.

 

Long before he became a multi-unit franchisee for Rita’s, and before he was an algebra teacher and high school basketball coach, Albert Holley was a business owner. He happened to run liquor stores while he worked his way through college, and although that satisfied his dream of being his own boss, it wasn’t quite the right fit. And it was vastly different from his experience today as the satisfied owner of a much happier type of business with Rita’s Italian Ice.

His first store opened in the North Windsor Mill, MD, area just outside of Baltimore in 2017, and in his first season he was able to increase sales over the previous season by 25%. His second location in nearby Catonsville, MD, will open in 2018. This is his story.

Why did you choose to build your Rita’s franchises in these two communities?

The original one, in the Windsor Mill area, is close to where I live – about 10 minutes from there. I taught school for a long time. I was a high school teacher and I had taught in the community since I was young. One of my dreams was to own a business in the community.

When did you decide to retire from teaching?

Last year, I was teaching at an alternative school and had sort of made up my mind that it was time to work for myself. June of 2016 was my last time in the classroom, and it just so happened that in July we got a notice that the particular store we own now was coming up for sale.

Tell me a little bit about how you found out about Rita’s.

Well, we’ve been customers for a long time; the brand has a really good footprint here in Maryland. We have two children – a 13-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old daughter. So we’d been customers for quite a long time and me and my wife decided we wanted to look into franchising. It was one of the franchises that we felt would be the best opportunity.

Then the store came up for sale and it was a good opportunity, a good location, and you could see that with just a little bit of effort you’d be able to increase the sales of that store.

Did either you or your wife have any food industry experience?

We had not, no. So this is our first dive into foodservice.

Rita’s is probably a good entryway into that area, I would think.

It is, because although you’re still preparing things for people to eat, you’re not cooking or doing a lot of those things you normally have to worry about in the foodservice industry. Those things don’t necessarily apply to a Rita’s. So, it’s a good model once you’ve mastered what you’re doing. It’s labor-intensive, but it’s pretty easy.

A row of Italian ices, some with mix-ins, are in red and green branded Rita’s cups.

Rita’s Italian Ice serves Italian ices and frozen custard in dozens of flavor combinations.

You just wrapped up your debut season with a 25% increase in sales over the previous year. How did you accomplish that?

First, we put a renewed focus on staffing the place and injecting some new energy into it. Then the second part was outreach into the community. Partnering with schools, partnering with churches, partnering with local organizations to do some catering and increase sales.

What does that look like for a Rita’s franchise when you approach a school? How do you pitch that to them?

There’s a couple of different angles. The first angle we take is the athletic events. For example, the football games. The first half of football season, the weather outside is still pretty conducive, so we’ll partner with the booster clubs or the athletic departments and we’ll go out and have these concessions for one of the games, and then we give back a percentage to that particular program.

Another angle is that most of our schools in the area have programs where they reward students for positive behavior. We partner with schools by giving them coupons or gift certificates for Rita’s as the students’ reward for behaving well in the classroom.

How do you keep your guests engaged during the off-season?

We’re still figuring that out, obviously, but one of the things we’re using a lot is social media to let people know that we still do catering, we can still do fundraising, we can still do bulk orders. Just kind of letting people know that we’re still available. We’ll still function, just not in-store.

I know you’re still new to this, but have you figured out yet what you find to be the most satisfying thing about being a Rita’s franchise owner?

The most satisfying thing, I would say, is just being in business for yourself. Secondary to that is the ability to hire young people and create jobs for kids in that community, which is very gratifying.

Is there anything about being a Rita’s franchisee that has really surprised you?

I guess the amount of people that are loyal to the brand was one of the surprises. The number of customers who just come back over and over and over again, sometimes three or four times a week just for the product. I think a lot of people would be surprised at what a huge following Rita’s really has, particularly in this market.

Is there anything else that prospective buyers should know about?

You know, if you’re asking yourself, “Why should I do it?” It’s very simple: Because it’s a great product, people love it and you have an opportunity to work for yourself.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about how to become a Rita’s franchisee, we invite you to continue exploring our research pages. You can also fill out the form on this page to gain access to Rita’s Franchise Information Center, where you can review our financial information, learn more about the business model and discover more in-depth information about our franchise offering.