Rita’s chameleon-like ability to mimic trends helped it stay hip to the times, but at the heart of the company’s success is its signature product, Italian ice.
“Their Italian ice is their differentiator,” Tristano says. “There are not a lot of places where you can go to get that product.”
Though line extensions and rotating flavor specials have been key to keeping the concept fresh and relevant, Rita’s menu is at its core focused on Italian ice. Therein lies its strength, says Charlie Baggs, president and executive chef at Charlie Baggs Inc., a foodservice consulting company.
“They’ve kept it simple and stuck to what they do well,” he says. “Too many chains try to do everything and lose focus of what their core competency is.”
That, Hoban says, is something Rita’s will not do. Though other snack players such as Starbucks and Jamba Juice, which added sandwiches, salads, and wraps in June, have expanded their menus to include items to bring in customers during other dayparts, Rita’s is firmly focused on its ices and frozen custard.
“We sell frozen treats,” Hoban says. “We’re a frozen-treat concept, and we’ve made a decision to stay true to our core brand.”
The reason for that decision seems to be twofold. For starters, adding more complex offerings would require more preparation in the back of the house, and because most of Rita’s business is done between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., that would likely increase wait times.
“Whenever we create new products, we have to be able to have speed of service at the window,” Hoban says. “One of our goals is to keep things simple and not complicate operations while maximizing the products we do have.”
The second reason is because they don’t have to. With as many as 1,300 transactions per store per week and up to a quarter of customers frequenting the brand more than once per week, according to Rudolph, Rita’s attracts a loyal following of fans who are passionate about the brand and its frozen treats.
“Once you’ve had it, you become very loyal,” Tristano says. “It’s a different product, it’s craveable, and you can’t get it at places like McDonald’s. They’ve really created a niche for themselves.”
Rita’s tagline is “ice, custard, happiness,” but that slogan can also serve as a formula for how the company manages to retain its customers: They come in for the ice and the custard, but they keep coming back because Rita’s works hard to create an environment that fosters happiness.
“When people come up to the counter, one thing I can assure you is that they’re happy,” Rudolph says. “They’re not coming in for caffeine; they’re not coming in because they’re hungry and they want to fill their face. They’re coming in because they feel good, and they want to treat themselves.”
The key for Rita’s is to keep that happiness alive throughout the visit with superior customer service, and it is able to achieve that by focusing on training. In 2007, Rita’s opened its Cool University, a 5,000-square-foot test location and training facility where franchisees and managers participate in workshops, online courses, and hands-on training. At any given time, there are also 20 field representatives dispatched to provide training at the store level. Progress is monitored via a scorecard that ranks how the stores are doing in areas including a mystery shop, facility review, and guest-sensitivity. When the scorecards debuted three years ago, only 7 percent of Rita’s locations earned the highest ranking. Today at least half have achieved top status.
“We’re getting better every day,” Rudolph says. “And that’s what we have to do to compete, give customers a better experience when they come into my store.”
“There are other competitors that offer other snacks and frozen treats, but we really believe Rita’s is a complete brand experience,” Hoban says. “Rita’s is a half-hour vacation that almost every family can afford. People just love it. There’s something special about the brand.”
Perhaps that something special can be attributed to Rita’s special events and promotions. For 16 years the company has given away free regular-size Italian ices to guests on the first day of spring when lines of fans at stores stretch around the block. Guests who sign up can also get a free treat on their birthdays. In addition, the company has given away more than $1.5 million to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a nonprofit benefiting pediatric cancer research, through its yearly Paper Lemon pledge drive.
“People really like that community involvement,” says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a brand and customer-loyalty research consultancy.
But more than any other way, he says Rita’s earned the loyalty and respect of customers simply by meeting and exceeding their expectations.
“That, or they’re mixing something into the Misto shakes,” he says.
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