Global Conversations with: Jonathan C. Fornaci, CEO of Rita's Franchise Company

Rita’s Franchise Company has been providing “Ice-Custard-Happiness” across the northeastern U.S. since founder Bob Tumulo opened Bensalem’s first shop in 1984. The chain offers a variety of frozen treats including famous Italian Ice, Old-Fashioned Frozen Custard, layered Gelatis, as well as its signature Misto and Blendini mix-in creations.

According to Jonathan C. Fornanci (now CEO), there is no other product out there like Rita’s Ice and the rest of the world deserves a taste too.  On May 11th, Zabeth Teelucksingh of Global Philadelphia Association interviewed Mr. Fornaci to discuss Rita’s initiatives for national and international expansion. Rita’s has announced they will now be serving guests the freshest and highest quality ice delights made from real fruit in the Dutch Caribbean isles, California, China, India, United Arab Emirates, Portugal and Spain.

How did you come to live in Philadelphia?

Rita’s Ice was purchased recently from a private equity firm based out of N.Y. They were looking for a new CEO and management team to help grow the organization. They brought me over from California and now we are not only expanding across the states, but also internationally. 

What are Rita’s initiatives to expand into the global marketplace?

Our two major expansions include India and China. Huge markets, huge populations and it’s warm (or hot) pretty much all year round. This product fits in perfectly with the demographics. If you look at the history of China or India, they don’t have a lot of home grown desserts. So what China has been doing is importing new ideas from around the world. I was thinking we were going to have to expand our menus dramatically. We currently have 64 flavors of ice, but we only had to add two flavors of ice to meet the flavor profiles for China and India.

What are the new flavors?

We are doing Lychee and Starfruit. We will have our first batch completed by the end of June. With all of Rita’s ice flavors, we are the only company who uses real fruit. We have to take fresh fruits from Asia, bring them over to the US and process them to make new flavors and then turn around and ship them back. We will make and ship all of the ice flavors from here to ensure the same quality. Everything will be exactly identical.

Why have you chosen the Caribbean, India, and China as key areas for growth?

Rita’s does phenomenally well in the Northeast (US), but due to weather constraints the stores are about open for seven months a year. When you start going into parts of the US or other countries where it’s hot 12 months of the year, it allows you to significantly increase the revenue. In areas of China/India it’s the same. Now we’re also working on a deal in Dubai and Abu Dhabi of the UAE. It’s hot pretty much all year round and there is no lack of demand.

What comes to mind as you promote Philadelphia’s international consciousness while traveling abroad?

There is a huge advantage for Philadelphia; where it’s located, the global ease of access, what it brings. The entire northeast is very much known around the world. People recognize it, especially when you’re in China and these countries that are undergoing major transitions; they still look at Philadelphia as the birthplace of the US. They have enough knowledge of US history and the freedom that came out of Philadelphia.

What does Rita’s Cool University in Ben Salem entail?

We require our Masters (Licensees) and developers to come here and spend a couple of weeks. By coming to the city, they get to understand the culture, and what Philadelphia and Rita’s represent.

At our Cool University in Ben Salem, we have the tasting rooms. We spend a week teaching them how to make the products; how to go in and use the equipment and service the customer. Once they go in and make the flavors and see it come out of the machines, there’s a sense of pride. By the end of just the first couple days they are on such a sugar high.

Do they visit Philadelphia while at Rita’s University?

The classes are 10 hours a day, but we encourage them to do trips around the city. It’s a beautiful city—great for walking. You can be in downtown Philadelphia and within a mile in any direction cover the majority of the city. I like that this is where Rita’s was founded, and to see the growth that has come out of Philadelphia. They get to understand the culture and what makes Philadelphia such a great city. They can take that back to the different countries where they are going to open Rita’s.

What makes a truly global city?

For me I always look at three things that make a city wonderful:

1) It’s got to be beautiful. I have a great place in downtown with a panoramic view and I look out at the skyline. I can see the river, the traffic, the commerce coming up and down the river, and beautiful shots of the bridge.

2) Museums and culture. From great theater, to great art, to great music.  That’s the underlying piece that thrives and makes the city pulsate. 

3) Great restaurants. To me, you can always have good restaurants in any city. But do you have the chefs that feel like they can be creative or do they have to duplicate what everyone has always done in the past? There are so many great restaurants. I love the little BYOBs. It’s a dining experience.

Do you have a favorite restaurant?

My absolutely favorite restaurant is BYOB Little Fish. It has a great atmosphere, a tiny little place in a nice part of the community. Everyone treats you so nice. Moving here from Philadelphia, I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s a very welcoming and friendly city. I love it…And great sports too.

Do you have a favorite Gizmo/electronic aid?

Well other than my passport (laughs)…would be my iPhone. I’m definitely a Mac guy. My iPhone and MacBook Air, I take everywhere.

What is the new flavor that will be coming out the end of June?

We will be rolling out Sour Patch Kids Red. It tastes exactly as if you were tasting the red Sour Patch Kid [candy]. Needless to say, when we were doing the trial batches, I’ve been ordering a lot of extra ones.

An additional note from Interviewer and Executive Director, Zabeth Teelucksingh:

After the interview Jonathan was kind enough to give me several dollars worth of coupons for my twelve-year-old whose favorite flavor is Swedish Fish. Being a mango specialist (fifteen years of growing five varieties in South Florida) I promptly used one to buy myself a mango ice and boy did it taste, good, authentic and worth coming back to all Summer long!