Former high school coach returns to his entrepreneurial dreams with Rita’s Italian Ice franchises
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.
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.
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