- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

Jerry C. Orr loves the heat. In fact, the owner of Rita's italian ice shop in Crofton relies on it to bring in big business.

"It's the ideal weather you want to be in the frozen-dessert business," Mr. Orr said. "I love every minute of it."

On this day, however, the insufferably hot and sticky heat the region has endured for weeks is finally relenting. But Mr. Orr doesn't seem worried. There's a steady stream of customers at the counter of the tiny stand-alone building on Defense Highway. They are filling up on a variety of flavored ice from cherry and lemon to papaya and banana.

Mr. Orr's franchise store is one of more than 250 stores in the Bensalem, Pa.-based Rita's chain that stretches from New York to Florida. The Crofton location is one of 18 in Maryland.

Mr. Orr says it's hard to get people to understand what Rita's Italian ice is, because it has a different texture and consistency from the hard "Italian ice" people may be used to.

"It's nothing like the frozen Italian ice you get out of a supermarket and its not as slushy as a Slurpee," Mr. Orr said.

Instead, he explained, Rita's ice is like wet snow mixed with real fruit.

The ice is made on site throughout the morning in two production machines tucked away in the corner of the 800-square-foot building. Usually the trained production managers make the batches before Mr. Orr gets in around noon.

Water and Rita's secret mix of flavors are added to produce each batch. It takes 30 to 35 minutes to freeze the ice. Each batch makes 8 or 9 gallons of flavored ice.

On a typical summer day, Rita's will have 10 to 12 batches of ice ready to serve more on weekends, Mr. Orr said.

The amount of ice made each day depends on the amount left over from the previous day. Mr. Orr fills out a production sheet after closing each night to let the production mangers know exactly how much to make in the morning.

On this day only five batches of ice are needed. The previous day's business was slowed due to rain.

The ice has only a 36-hour shelf life at the store to ensure its freshness. It's a corporate policy, but Mr. Orr says the ice doesn't actually go bad. In fact, many customers buy the ice and keep it in their own freezers. It tastes virtually the same but is harder.

Rita's offers 25 flavors but not all of them on the same day. Mr. Orr rotates the flavors, offering nine or 10 different flavors each day but always offering the top sellers: lemon, cherry and chocolate.

Six other flavors like pina colada, banana, and cookies 'n' cream are stored in freezers behind the counter on this day.

About half of the flavors actually contain real fruits, such as blueberries, bananas, watermelon and maraschino cherries.

During the day the ice at the store is constantly being "pumped" so it doesn't harden. Every 30 minutes a timer goes off and each bucket of ice is mixed thoroughly to keep it smooth and break up any chunks that may be forming.

Mr. Orr's staffers, decked out in Rita's garb from shirts to hats, usually are pumping the ice during the day. However when it gets busy usually after dinner Mr. Orr steps in and pumps the ice himself.

He says much of his day includes supervising the staff of 18 high school students, ordering supplies, figuring out advertising and making sure the whole operation is running smoothly.

Mr. Orr wore many different hats before opening Rita's in July 1998. He worked in the insurance, banking, car-rental and technology industries before deciding to branch out on his own.

"All of those jobs helped me be self-employed," he said.

Mr. Orr said after breaking even the first year he was open, he has turned a profit every year since.

Rita's is a seasonal shop open from March to September. On the first day of spring every Rita's shop offers free ice to customers.

"It gives the skeptics a chance to try it," he said.

This year Mr. Orr's shop served 1,200 cups on March 20 in 40-degree weather.

Mr. Orr's will close Sept. 29. He will spend the off-season vacationing when he can, but mainly preparing for the reopening in March and spreading the word about Rita's.

"I'm just trying to educate the public on Rita's and getting name recognition out there," Mr. Orr said. "I want to get their minds changed on what Italian ice really is."

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