Rita’s Franchise Review: IFA Operator of the Year, Mitch Cove of Philadelphia
He’s our OG franchisee, the longest-standing franchise owner in the system, IFA’s Operator of the Year, and he loves where he sees the brand going today
Meet Mitch Cove. He was recently named Franchisee of the Year by the International Franchise Association (IFA). We’ve always known him to be an exemplary businessman during his decades with Rita’s Italian Ice, and we’re proud of his latest honor. Mitch has seen a lot of changes in his 30 years as a Rita’s franchise owner. Leadership changes, ups and downs. Today he’s running two shops in the greater Philadelphia area, one in Bucks County and the other in Rockledge. Mitch and his wife, Eileen, are happy with their two locations, which opened in the early ’90s, and loving the new energy they’re seeing in the brand under the leadership of CEO Linda Chadwick. He tells his story in this Rita’s Franchise Review.
What were you doing before you became a Rita’s franchisee?
I was a CPA working with a public accounting firm in Philadelphia. In fact, I was a junior partner of a firm and my wife was an assistant manager at a retail clothing store called The Limited.
And what made the two of you think, “Hey, let’s go start our own business?”
I had no knowledge or experience, in any business of any kind, nor did any of my family members or parents, grandparents, nobody was ever in business for themselves. So there really wasn’t any model to follow. I was actually just looking for something as a supplement to our income.
And my wife saw through an ad that Rita’s was franchising and they were having a meeting about the opportunity, and she brought it to my attention. I thought it might be interesting, so I went to the meeting and I liked what I heard and jumped in with both feet.
I take it you were already familiar with the brand itself?
I think I’d had it once. My wife may have been slightly more familiar… There were shops out there, but not a lot of brand recognition at that time. But I was familiar with the product. Water ice, as we call it here.
So, what was it at the time that made you just jump in?
They were challenging times, with the economy. It was the late ’80s and the economy was struggling. Our firm was struggling. Our clients were struggling to pay their bills, so the cash flow wasn’t great. It was kind of, right thing at the right time. It just seemed like an interesting opportunity.
I didn’t know anything about the business or the retail business, the frozen dessert business. But I liked what they were proposing and they had a good, strong system and a good product and I took a shot. I’m not risk averse in what I do. It was risky, but you know, at that time, my wife and I were relatively newly married and no children. It was just the two of us. It was a calculated risk.
If you were just getting into business today, what about Rita’s today would make you want to jump in and invest?
Well now, 35 years later, it’s a proven brand. A strong brand. A great product, really one of the best out there. I think our soft serve product is probably the best out there. I’ve never tasted anything better. It’s an iconic Philadelphia brand — and I’m born and raised in Philadelphia, so I completely get the whole experience of Rita’s.
The seasonality is also a huge attraction. Having months off to regroup is not a bad thing if you can manage your cash flow properly. And knowing what I know now, I have a lot of confidence in the current leadership group at Rita’s, especially the CEO, Linda Chadwick. They’re really experienced in operations and really digging down deep into how this business works and what makes it successful and what we need to do to grow and to run a better business. In all areas, whether it’s operations, cost of goods, marketing, PR, reaching out to our guests, making better experiences.
So it’s a good time to get into this — and I can share this with others, because I’ve been through the good times and the bad times, the good leadership groups and the not-so-good leadership groups. So, I would absolutely do it again. I’d do it all over again.
Since Linda’s been at the helm, is there anything that Rita’s corporate has been doing for you that has helped improve your bottom line?
Yeah. Rita’s current leadership immediately embraced our marketing. We have a regional marketing co-op and we’ve been able to do a lot of very impactful marketing and advertising programs, and she’s been very supportive of that, giving us whatever resources we need, empowering staff to get involved with our marketing and local events and really giving us the support and the resources that we’ve always needed. And that’s given us more of an opportunity to continue building the brand in our market and to get out there into the community. Prior to Linda becoming our CEO and getting involved, the responsibility was mostly dropped upon the shoulders of the individual franchisees.
For me, that’s been exciting and heartwarming to know that she really understands what it’s going to take to make this company continue to succeed and grow.
So you’re thinking of adding another unit?
That’s our goal and our plan. That’s one of the beauties about having a seasonal business. It allows you to focus on how to grow your business. When you’re shut down, you can really take the time to develop a plan and then start to put into place and get it going after a few months.
After all these years, what’s the most satisfying thing about being a Rita’s franchise owner?
For me, there’s a couple. One, it’s really a family business, which allows us to involve not only our spouses, but our children. My parents were involved in the business. My in-laws, my cousins. It’s a great business and it’s a fun business to be able to share and have your family involved with as well. My children had the experience of working in the business and working hard and learning what responsibility is like.
But one of the greatest thrills for me is really having been able to work with a lot of teenagers. I’ve had maybe a thousand or more teenagers come through my ranks over the last 30 years. And to see them get their first job and experience that. Some of them take advantage of the opportunity that’s been given to them and really just grow and evolve as people and then go on, after they leave Rita’s, to become exceptional adults and parents with children and spouses. Just go on and do great things. It’s really neat, to think that we had some small part in their growth and development.
It’s a great first job and a first step for a young person. So I’d like to think we’re contributing a little bit to the development of our people.
Is there anything that you would want a prospective buyer to know about the Rita’s opportunity?
Yes. If you’re interested in getting involved, make sure you’re going to be willing and able to work in the business, learn the business, understand the business and be there, at least in the first few years. Because it’s not like most other businesses. It’s a connection business. Every day is a different story, a different experience. You know, it’s not like a McDonald’s. It’s not like many other businesses.
The other thing that I really appreciate about Rita’s current leadership team and the direction is that they have that same approach to interviewing potential franchise candidates. And it’s great that they understand that it’s going to require engagement by the franchisee for it to be successful.
Learn more about the Rita’s opportunity
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