Rita’s franchise review: Dave Harris of Willingboro, New Jersey
Former attorney finds happiness as a Rita’s franchise owner, a career change he says has added years to his life
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dave Harris has been enjoying Rita’s Italian Ice since at least the 90s. So when the former attorney met a Rita’s owner during an investment meeting, he jumped at the chance to buy an existing franchise. “I knew that it was a delicious product,” Harris says. “I knew that it was very popular, especially in the core market of Philadelphia, Jersey, parts of Maryland and Delaware. Rita’s started in Philadelphia in 1984. The core market just has a cult following.” They opened in 2012, and today he and his wife, Vivian Pressley, are the proud owners of a Rita’s walk-in unit in Willingboro, New Jersey. Harris talks about their journey in this Rita’s franchise review.
Did you ever consider any other brands?
Before that investment meeting, my wife and I were looking at some flower businesses and maybe Edible Delights. So we were casually looking at other things before this meeting. We probably weren’t going to jump and do it for another couple of years. But when this Rita’s opportunity came up, this really was, like, “Wow!” because we were actually customers at the shop. So that’s another unique thing. I mean the shop is in my town and we were regular customers at the shop. It was a known entity to us.
So you already knew a little bit about the traffic they were getting and how well they were doing just by observation.
Yes, and we’ve doubled the sales at the shop since we took over, too.
Are you still a practicing attorney?
I’m not active now because I run the shop. I’m a hands-on owner.
Is your wife involved as well? Does she have a role in the business?
Yes. She works full time as a software developer, but she handles the books, hiring and scheduling. She’ll work the shop on weekends sometimes and she handles planning with a lot of our outdoor events. We do have a mobile unit. We can go out to baseball games and other venues and sell water ice from a mobile freezer. My wife does a lot of the planning and scheduling for that, and she also does a lot of supervising of the staff in terms of protocol, what they need to do.
Do you and your wife have any exit plans for your shop at this point?
It’s a possibility. I would say, honestly, it will be maybe four to five years before we’re thinking about it.
What makes Rita’s a good investment?
It’s just a unique product, freshly made water ice. We have a special recipe for our frozen custard, which is very different from ice cream. It distinguishes itself from other products because it’s unique.
How do you feel about where they’re taking the brand? Is there anything they’ve been doing to help you improve your bottom line?
Linda Chadwick, our CEO, is my third CEO. I must say Linda has brought stability to us. That’s critical. Rita’s is like a big ocean liner, and we can’t be wobbling and shifting back and forth every year or two. And she has brought on good leadership in the marketing area. There has been a big improvement in the last two years and that’s because of Linda. In today’s world, you must market to be in front of people’s eyes, to be on their minds and to be in their ears.
What are some of your most effective marketing tactics?
Social networking, like Facebook, Instagram. You’re dealing with a young generation, and if you want them to know your product you have to be on social networking. Our product is beautiful, it’s captivating. We do our own social media marketing for our local shop, about 99% of it. And a lot of people will point to our Facebook page and to our Instagram account as a good example. Rita’s helped us start that as well. Your Franchise Consultant will guide you through some of this. Eight years ago I didn’t understand the impact of social networking, but we learned a lot through our FC.
And are you seeing direct results in terms of not just customer engagement but attracting people to the business?
Absolutely, yes. We have over 4,000 followers or likes on our page. And within the industry, that’s a very high number. So we get a lot of interaction, a lot of feedback, a lot of recommendations to other people. Customers come in saying they saw a delicious sundae on Instagram; then they show us the picture and say “please make this;” that experience is always a pleasure.
What to you is the most satisfying thing about being a franchise owner for Rita’s? What do you love the most about being in this business?
I love watching little kids’ faces when they’re picking their favorite water ice flavor, or they’re asking for sprinkles on their custard. It’s the biggest joy just to watch a smile come over their face or just know that they’re coming back a third time that week for something that really makes them happy. It really speaks to our motto “Ice, Custard, Happiness!”
It’s got to be a lot different from what you experienced as an attorney.
Correct. As an attorney you see a lot of stress, a lot of anger, a lot of “why did this happen to me?” I feel like I’ve added years to my life.
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