Multi-unit franchisee turned Rita’s into a family enterprise. See how he grew from fresh college graduate to multi-unit owner.
Tom Kowal owns four walk-up Rita’s Italian Ice units: a stand-alone in Clinton, NJ, that he purchased in 2006; an end-cap location in Flemington, NJ, which he acquired in 2011; and his third and fourth locations in Whitehouse Station and Stewartsville, NJ, which he has owned since 2014 and 2015 respectively.
“You really enjoy economies of scale at this level,” Kowal says. “Your payroll’s pretty low, your cost of goods is pretty low, and when it comes to food, it’s less perishable than most items. The shelf life is pretty good and you could get up and running with minimal overhead.”
Read about how Kowal got his start, and what’s next, in this Rita’s franchise review.
How did you first learn about Rita’s and how did you first come to this idea that you might want to be a Rita’s Franchisee?
It was kind of a family thing, I guess you could say. My aunt and uncle actually owned a shop in Bridgewater, and when they were going to build their Bridgewater shop, which is their first shop, it was 2003 and I was in college. Over my Christmas break I was like, “Look, I don’t have a summer job. If you want help I could help you out.” And they said, “Yeah, why don’t you come with me to this Rita’s six-day franchise training school” and I said alright. And the plan was they were going to get built out in the summer and I would come home for summer break and help them run the shop. As we know, construction delays happen and they couldn’t get up and running for the summer.
I went to the shop in Flemington, which I now own, to talk to the then-owner and said, “Hey, I have this training, can I help you out?” and he said, “Sure.” I started there making $5.15 an hour, which was minimum wage back then. After some time, he gave me the keys and I became a manager. Once my uncle and aunt were up and running, I went between the two shops helping them both and then the same thing the following year.
How did you make the leap to ownership?
Senior year comes around I don’t know what I want to do, like every other senior graduate. That winter, my mom saw an ad for the Clinton Rita’s for sale in a local newspaper. I’m thinking, hey, I’m 21, how am I going to buy a Rita’s? And my mom said, “Well if you don’t go talk to them, you’re never going to find out.”
I basically walked out of college and within a couple of weeks we closed the deal. I knew that doing one shop with a loan wouldn’t sustain the quality of life that I wanted, so I started looking at multiple locations.
Is your family involved in your Rita’s operations?
My mom and sister are both heavily involved in the business. We also have a stationary cart in a Little League complex and we have a mobile trailer. So we can do events at skating rinks. It really all builds on itself.
So are you able to meet your business goals with the units that you have now?
We are able to meet our business goals with each individual store. Every year we determine where growth opportunities exist and focus our efforts with a new strategy and a new set of goals. Our shops reached mature levels but we believe there is always room to grow and increase sales. This year we are discussing an adding another shop to our business portfolio.
What do you like best about being a Rita’s franchise owner?
It is a fun job. I mean, you’re dealing with people in a fun atmosphere. For the most part they’re not coming in with any issues. They’re coming to enjoy themselves, and you’re providing a way for them to do that. Making people happy is always awesome, even though there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of people underestimate that.
What does corporate offer in terms of support? How do they help you with your franchise marketing strategy?
They are pretty committed to helping out the franchisee with support. I also have had some really good Franchise Business Consultants who’ll do anything they can to help you. Their goals and their bonuses are all tied to our performance, so they’re incentivized to help us work toward our goals.
Do you talk to other franchisees out there. Do you get support from your fellow owners?
Yeah, everyone around me. We are a community of franchisees and are like a family to one another. It really comes down to, “Hey, I forgot to order this” or “I ran out of this other stuff, can I borrow a case or a sleeve of cups” or whatever and we try to help each other out because I’ll rub your back if you rub mine.
Rita’s provides a lot of support at all levels to their franchisees. We have an online forum exclusive to Rita’s for communicating with other franchisees.
What kind of person do you think would be successful as a Rita’s franchise owner?
I think somebody who’s outgoing and understands people and somebody that really just has good moral character. You’re dealing with people all the time, and you want to have just the right head on your shoulders to deal with them. Make sure you’re focusing on your guests, making them happy.
So if it’s the middle of summer, what does your typical day look like?
For me now, because I have four locations and I can’t be in all of them at once, I have to have four managers. So somebody is there handling the daily operations and I’m typically coordinating with my mom or my sister, who’s a general manager, for what all has to go on in the day. Planning out orders, inventory, marketing stuff, do we have any events coming up? Looking at the week as a whole if we can, up to the weekend. Because every day is different and every shop is different. The shop in Clinton is on a major highway, so at rush hour we’re dead. For the shop in Flemington, rush hour is busy because everyone’s right out of work and we’re right out where they are.
What is it that’s bringing customers into Rita’s? Why do your customers love Rita’s?
It’s definitely the product. Frozen custard is not the same as soft-serve ice cream, it’s superior.
So, soft serve ice cream you can make in many different ways. Whether it’s a powder and water concentrate and you mix it together, or just using a liquid premix that maybe has high sugar, low butterfat. Whereas frozen custard has a higher level of butterfat so it is richer, it is creamier. Custard has a little bit of egg in the process to give it the custard flavor. The Italian ice flavors are simple and delicious and the kids come back because they love it, especially our Swedish Fish and Cotton Candy flavors.
We just have a decent combination of frozen treats you can make out of our ice and our custard that everyone can enjoy.
Tom, if you were just starting out today, knowing what you know now, would you still become a Rita’s franchisee?
Yes. From an investment standpoint, I’d still do a Rita’s because I think the investment is still worth it.
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 more Rita’s franchise reviews.