While Jeremiah’s Italian Ice felt the hit of the coronavirus pandemic when it began back in March, the chain didn’t lose momentum in either serving guests or developing new franchised stores.
“Our team just united and was able to respond really quickly,” director of brand development Devin Schneider says. “We started making changes weekly to adapt to a fluid situation. We are so grateful for our ability to help sustain our communities through this.”
Throughout COVID-19, it’s been helpful for the chain that its signature products—Italian ice, soft-serve ice cream, and gelati, or layered ice and soft serve—are easy to deliver to customers through drive-thru windows and various contactless methods. But even more helpful has been the brand’s willingness to change operations at lightning speeds.
At the front of the crisis, the concept quickly launched Jeremiah’s To-Go, a trio of off-premises channels including carryout, delivery by UberEats and DoorDash, and drive thru, made possible by a number of locations that already had drive-thru windows in place pre-pandemic.
In addition to changing dining options, Jeremiah’s rolled out Virtual Discovery Days for those interested in franchising. Through the program, interested candidates and those who have already committed to franchising with the brand are able to connect digitally with the Jeremiah’s team to ask questions, discuss concerns, and even begin the franchising process.
“We’re looking for ways to provide support services, but also press pause,” Schneider says. “The Virtual Discovery Days are a way to do this with our expansion plan; they allow us to continue to talk to people in the pipeline and give them a chance to learn about our brand.”
The company’s franchising program debuted in spring 2019, after Jeremiah’s had been serving soft, flavorful ices and ice creams for more than two decades.
Founder Jeremy Litwick initially began selling Italian ice as a high schooler from a cart in front of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. After growing his original business to include a pushcart and ice cream truck, he was looking to expand, but his Italian ice vendor wasn’t. This pushed Litwick to perfect his own techniques and develop the perfect icy-yet-soft combination of fresh fruit, fruit puree, water, and sugar.
Jeremiah's Italian Ice
FOUNDER: Jeremy Litwack
HEADQUARTERS: Winter Park, Florida
YEAR STARTED: 1996
TOTAL UNITS: 24
FRANCHISED UNITS: 2
In 1996, Litwick tested his new recipes with the opening of Jeremiah’s flagship location in Winter Park, Florida. Since that first summer 24 years ago, Jeremiah’s has grown slowly yet steadily, with a focus on Florida. Today, the chain has 22 corporate stores and one franchise unit in the state, all offering more than 40 flavors of Italian ice, ice cream, and gelati.
“Jeremiah’s started in central Florida because that was really the perfect place to introduce this type of treat to the Southeastern U.S.,” Schneider says. “The backbone of our brand is a very rich and vibrant product. We have enough options to meet any customer’s desired flavor profile.”
Schneider says that Jeremiah’s star menu item is its gelati, due to the endless combinations it allows guests. While Jeremiah’s does have a signature menu complete with seasonal items—Lemon Basil gelati was spring’s limited-time treat—customers can also pick and choose individual layers of ice and ice cream for unlimited flavor mixes. For those looking for even more combos, there’s a secret menu.
“It’s all about delivering a flavorful experience, extending beyond the financial transaction, and making a connection with each individual guest,” Schneider says.
When the pandemic hit, Jeremiah’s maintained its full menu and rolled out its seasonal offerings. Schneider says the company’s loyalty app, J-List Rewards, was a main channel of communication with guests while dining rooms were closed, allowing the chain to promote special events like Cinco De Jeremi-Os, a Cinco de Mayo celebration marked by limited-time Mango Margarita Ice served in Italian Ice, Gelati, or B.Y.O.B. Bucket (an at-home cocktail kit) formats.
Now that Jeremiah’s patio dining spaces are open again in Florida, Schneider says that signage denoting the proper social distancing guidelines and newly installed Plexiglass shields between employee and guest have proven important for post-pandemic success. But he says the core focus of Jeremiah’s recent operations—to provide customers with a safe treat amidst stressful circumstances—has remained consistent through closures and, now, reopenings.
“Through the pandemic, we’ve found that guests in these communities are really grateful for a bright spot of normalcy,” he says. “The times are uncertain, and we are able to provide people with a very affordable, safe treat. We’re grateful for that.”
As for most foodservice brands, the coronavirus pandemic came as a seismic shift for Jeremiah’s expansion plans. As the virus began to wreak havoc on the industry early this spring, the chain was in the throes of developing 106 stores that were already sold to 43 different franchising groups.
“We tried to be very sensitive to the timing of individual franchisees,” Schneider says. “We looked for ways to help guide them along in the development process, but also help them address the unique changes that were evolving every day.”
Finding a balance between caution and continuing growth was a delicate process. The Virtual Discovery Days were a key part of this, allowing “a touchpoint to continue relationships while things were paused fully,” Schneider says.
In spite of the pandemic’s challenges, the brand was able to open its first franchise outside of Florida in Chandler, Arizona, and is on track for a total of 15 new franchises to open by the end of 2020.
“At the end of the day, we are a people-first company, not only internally, but also with our guests and our communities,” Schneider says. “We think that is ultimately what has helped set us apart over the last year. We’ve got great success ahead of us. Right now, we’re making sure that every one of the franchises are wildly successful, but we’re going to continue to grow and develop beyond that.”