One of the most fascinating aspects of a food business such as Rita's Franchising Co. is the perspective it provides on global tastes, Jeffrey A. Moody, chief executive of Rita's, told me in our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer.
Start with Rita's starting concept -- water ice. Founder Bob Tumulo, a former Philadelphia firefighter, used his mother's recipes for water ice and sold them out of a front-porch window stand in Bensalem, naming the initial store after his wife, Rita. Water ice, a variation on the more broadly-accepted Italian ice, Moody said, is really only known in the Philadelphia area. In fact, most of the franchisees who open restaurants in other states are usually folks from here who want to introduce a Philly favorite to the rest of the nation, or even the world. Rita's plans store openings in Canada, the Middle-East and Puerto Rico.
Coming Wednesday morning: The care and feeding of franchisees.
Right now, the company has only two international stores, both in the Philippines. Oddly enough, the favorite U.S. flavor, mango, bombed there. Why? Because, Moody said, the Philippines have another type of mango on the islands and they prefer theirs. So, to make the flavor popular there, Rita's had to develop and mix syrup from the two types of mangoes.
During our interview, Moody took me into the test kitchen lined with shelves of jugs of flavored syrups. "Green tea," he said pointing to one jug. " We did that for Philippines. Here's one that is strictly at this point for the Philippines, Ube."
Ube? Ever heard of it? It's a purple yam and when cooked makes a delicious looking dessert.
"It's a root vegetable and it's good," Moody said. "t's nothing that you or I would have normally had. It's not a crave-able thing for us."
All together, there are 65 flavors. One is Horchata, named after the delicious Mexican drink made with rice, milk, vanilla and cinnamon. "It's a great flavor," Moody said. "A lot of people don't get the name. You have to have a certain level of sophistication. It's funny, you mentioned the Hispanic market. When we introduced that flavor, it just didn't go in the Latino neighborhoods, it went every place. It's wonderful."
Rita's sources its flavors from I. Rice & Co. Inc., a flavor company in Northeast Philadelphia. I. Rice has supplied Rita's since the company began in 1984. (By the way, I. Rice was in its hundredth year when it landed Rita's as a customer.) I asked Moody whether he was nervous having all of Rita's flavors come from one company. What if, God forbid, there was a fire, or some other catastrophe?
"I think we're their biggest customer, but they do pie filings and some other things for some other companies," Moody said. "They're great people."
But, he said, Rita's has the recipes and there are back-up manufacturers who could fill in, if necessary.
Meanwhile, "they're great people," Moody said. "If you give them a flavor, and it takes a couple of iterations, but they will replicate the flavor to a `T.'
Last year, Moody said, Rita's developed a promotion with Starburst and I. Rice created variations on Rita's orange water ice to mimic the orange Starburst flavor. Soon there will be a blood orange flavor, also developed by I. Rice.
"There's peanut butter and jelly ice," he said. "My first reaction was, `Is that going to be any good?' It was a dead ringer for peanut butter and jelly sandwich flavor. Me personally I wouldn't want a whole cup of it, but sampling it was delicious. So if you name it, they can create it."