Rita’s Italian Ice Returning to Mahoning County

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio ­­– Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard treats will soon be available again in Mahoning County as John Sarandrea prepares to open a store at 6006 Mahoning Ave. here later this summer.

Just in time for a fun time out with family, a special someone or just a treat for yourself, the new Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard will include all the treats expected from the franchise. Sarandrea plans to offer 16 flavors of Italian ice and rotate in and out about 16 flavors of the frozen custard. Offering the ability to mix Reese’s, Oreo’s and Nilla products into the frozen custard, Sarandrea said Rita has the connections with those “big brands that have stood the test of time.”

Another favorite is mixing the Italian Ice and frozen custard for Gelati treats, he said.

Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard was founded in 1984 by Bob Tumolo, a former Philadelphia firefighter, who named the company after his wife, Rita, and started selling frozen treats from his front porch in a Philly suburb. According to the company website, today there are franchises located in 30 states. Staying with their mission to spread happiness, the company gives away free Italian Ice to customers on the first day of Spring.

In addition to the relaxing patio area, the new Austintown location will include a drive-thru, something Sarandrea believes is now a necessity for his business in today’s world.

Sarandrea operates a Rita’s store at 2393 E. State St. in Hermitage, Pa.

In addition to the patio area, the new store will include a drive-thru, something Sarandrea believes is a necessity in today’s world. He says it’s important to listen to customers and look at marketing data.

Customers told him that although his Hermitage store is close to the Ohio border, they missed having a Rita’s in Mahoning County. At one time there was a Rita’s in Austintown and most recently, in Boardman.

Customers also are seeking convenience, which is why he will be offering his treats through Door Dash, noting his Hermitage store does $3,000 per month in business through the delivery app.

The new store will be in the western area of the Austitnown Plaza where patrons can find JCPenney’s, Buffalo Wild Wings and Planet Fitness, to name a few.

“We’re very excited to be in Austintown,” Sarandrea said. “It seems to be in a boom right now. A Chick-fil-A just opened and another Starbucks location is underway.”

Despite supply chain delays, Sarandrea hopes to open the new store July 1. He is waiting for a critical electrical part to be manufactured and shipped, which is necessary to support the large amount of electricity needed to operate all the equipment at the same time.

“You are really at the mercy of it,” he said of the supply chain concerns currently facing businesses.

The problems he has faced include a lack of contractors, supplies, trucking issues and the astronomical price of gas, all contributing to 8%, 10% or even 15% increases in prices for what he needs to open a new store. Suppliers are charging an additional 3% for using a credit card and those hauling supplies are tacking on a fuel surcharge.

“I fear as this continues, people are going to have less discretionary money for a treat,” Sarandrea said. “You have to hang in there.”

The Rita’s Italian Ice and Frozen Custard corporation gave franchisees the right to raise prices mid-season this year because of the increase in costs to operate, according to Sarandrea. There are more than 600 Rita’s stores across the country.

Sarandrea said he chose not to raise prices right now. He believes there is a cap on how much you can charge for the product. It may cut into his profit margin, but he will continue to make a profit, he said.

“I don’t mind making a little less and getting through these times,” Sarandrea said. “It’s a delicate balancing act owning a business in 2022. It hurts everybody. We’re all in it together and we’re going to get through it together.”

Although many businesses are having trouble hiring workers, he has a list of young people who are lining up to interview for the 25 part-time positions at the new store.

Sarandrea is a former high school basketball coach, educator and school district superintendent. He believes in giving young employees the ability to assist in creating their work schedule.

“If you want to hire the best and brightest kids, you want the ones involved in soccer, track, the musical,” Sarandrea said. “It really works well for them even though I tell them that it won’t be like that in the real world, that’s my Rita’s world.”

The employees give the manager their schedule, including when they have practice and after school activities. The employee work schedule is then designed around that timetable. He said he does not want students to miss their activities or leave them early just to make it to work.

The timing of when he opened his first store was hampered by COVID-19 pandemic challenges ­– only essential construction was allowed and the building inspections were delayed. But Sarandrea and his two sons, who also are involved in the business, persevered. They also opened a food truck he calls “Rita’s on the Road.”

Sarandrea said the food truck has become a full-time business in itself. They take the food truck to events and fundraisers, sometimes as a way to give back to the community. The business collaborates with groups, splitting the profits.  For example, recently a Hermitage-Hickory area baseball organization pulled in $300 through a fundraiser with Rita’s.

Last year, Sarandrea’s Rita’s business donated $40,000 to charities, schools and teams in the Shenango Valley.

“We want to be part of the community,” he said. “We want to let people know, we want to join with them and work with people.”

Pictured at top: John Sarandrea at his Rita’s store in Hermitage, Pa.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.