The Rita’s Italian Ice Story
A Genuinely Cool History
As it turns out, people have been enjoying water ice for centuries. This cool treat’s heritage can be traced back to Ancient Rome and Greece where, it is said, people would infuse handfuls of snow from Mount Etna with wines and syrups as a special delicacy. In fact, Sicily is often cited as the birthplace of modern water ice as far as the Western world is concerned. Interestingly, the flavors once preferred in the western part of Sicily are still among the most popular today: coffee and lemon.
Conquering Europe and the New World
Water ice made its European debut around the same time as ice cream—in the second half of the 17th century. But whether water ice was first prepared in Italy, France, or Spain, no one knows for sure. Whatever the point of origin though, the delicious news spread quickly and eventually crossed the English Channel to Britain. From there, it was just a short hop to the “new world” as British and European settlers brought their favorite frosty treat to the fledgling cities on the Atlantic Coast of America. Water ice had officially become an international hit.
A Star is Born—and it’s Delicious
We can’t imagine a more appropriate setting for the Rita’s story to begin than the sweltering hot summer of 1984. It was then that Bob Tumolo, a former Philadelphia firefighter, started selling Italian Ice (also referred to as water ice) from a small porch window in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. With the modest goal of earning a little extra income, he named the business after his wife. You guessed it! Her name is Rita.
Bob and his mother, Elizabeth, set to work on their special formulation of Italian Ice, which they made fresh each day. They quickly perfected the flavors and consistency of the frozen treat, adding chunks of fresh fruit to the recipes—and ensuring freshness by discarding whatever they hadn’t sold after 36 hours.
Rita’s Italian Ice was a flavor sensation with Philadelphians, who are arguably the most devoted and discriminating consumers of water ice in the United States. By 1987, Bob and his brother, John, had opened three more Rita’s locations in the Philadelphia area to meet increasing demand. Soon, customers started approaching Bob, wanting a taste of Rita’s success. In 1989, Bob started franchising the business and by 1996, Rita’s had grown to more than 100 outlets in nine states.
Today, Rita’s Italian Ice continues to grow, expand, and spread happiness everywhere it goes. Still made fresh every day with real fruit. Still refreshing. Still fun. Still delicious. Just like it was in the early days when Bob Tumolo and his mother opened the very first Rita’s in Philadelphia.
Rita’s: The Next Big Step
May 2005 marked a new era in the evolution of Rita’s with the sale of the franchise system to McKnight Capital Partners, a private equity group led by Jim Rudolph and his brother, Bill. Having owned and operated 48 of the nation’s highest-performing Wendy’s restaurants for more than 20 years, Jim recognized the endless potential for Rita’s franchise business.
Rita’s continued to see unprecedented growth under Jim’s guidance. The number of franchise agreements doubled from 109 in 2005, to 219 in 2006. The number of annual new store openings also increased dramatically from 33 stores in 2005, to 68 in 2006, and to 100 in 2007.
Since its humble beginnings on a Philadelphia front porch in 1984, Rita’s Italian Ice had grown tremendously. In 2007, Rita’s opened its 500th location in Mooresville, North Carolina, and marked a milestone in 2009 with the celebration of its 25th anniversary.
In December of 2011, a controlling interest in Rita’s was sold to Falconhead Capital, LLC. Founded in 1998, Falconhead is a leading investment firm focused on operationally-intensive control investments in small to lower middle-market companies. Falconhead takes a proactive operating approach to value creation by targeting transactions in niche growth verticals where they can leverage their substantial financial, operational, and strategic resources to help businesses pursue growth opportunities and other value building strategies.
With over $500 million of aggregate capital commitments, Falconhead’s Funds are managed by an investment team that, collectively, has extensive experience in both operations and finance. Falconhead’s limited partners include a number of leading public and private pension funds, banks, foundations, and endowments.
Falconhead is very pleased to be able to add Rita’s to its current group of portfolio companies focused on consumer leisure and lifestyle industries in the US. Unlike many traditional investment firms, which rely on financial engineering to produce returns, Falconhead has generated superior returns by helping to build and grow great businesses. They employ teams of dedicated professionals who have extensive experience developing and supporting new growth strategies, strengthening management teams, and recruiting high quality board members.