Investor David Moross' Falconhead Capital, New York, says it's bought a controlling interest in Trevose-based Rita's Water Ice Franchise Co. for more than $30 million from Pittsburgh's Rudolph family, which had owned the chain since 2005.

With 550 stores from Manhattan to Arizona, up from 319 concentrated in the Philadelphia area and down the Shore six years ago, "Rita's has been obviously a very successful, high-growth, super-regional brand," but "it's become a lot more difficult" for small store operators to raise money for expansion, said Falconhead partner Thomas Christopoul, Rita's new chairman and acting CEO.

The Rudolphs, who do business as McKnight Capital, had hoped to expand the chain beyond 1,000 larger, year-round stores, but growth stalled in the recession as would-be store operators found it tough to borrow the money they needed to get started.
Christopoul told me he wants to expand Rita's to China, Puerto Rico and other markets while adding more stores in its mid-Atlantic heartland, possibly by helping franchisers get cheap, government-guaranteed loans from the federal Small Business Administration.  He previously worked for buyout and franchising mogul Henry Silverman at the former Cendant Corp.  Falconhead also owns Javo, a coffee retailer, among other businesses.
Jim Rudolph, who moved to Philadelphia to run Rita's for his family, will stay on as vice chairman. Founder Bob Tumolo, a Northeast Philadelphia firefighter, started the chain in 1984. 
Check out video as Rita's makes a batch of water ice.