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

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 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 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.