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.

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