- March 24, 2021
Carrying out its motto of “Ice Custard Happiness,” Rita’s is making downtown Winter Garden a little bit sweeter.
The Italian-ice chain first launched in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1984. Today, Rita’s serves Italian ice and custard to people in more than 30 states. Rita’s is known for its made-fresh-daily Italian ice and award-winning frozen custard and has more than 600 locations worldwide.
Winter Garden resident Cara Washington, who hails from New Jersey, always loved Rita’s. A couple of years ago, she and her business partner, Mervin Johnson, decided to take a leap of faith and open their own Rita’s franchise. The two knew they were adding something to the area that others would love, too.
“In 2018, we went to the Rita’s Day so you could learn about Rita’s and what the franchise was all about,” Washington said. “We thought it was a good business ideal. We both still work, but being partners and being able to hire staff that can run the store and everything, we thought it would be a good opportunity to put something here that Florida didn’t have a lot of.”
“This was the perfect opportunity to move from our current careers into something that would see us into our retirement years,” Johnson said.
Washington added that Rita’s is a fun, family-friendly place that offers sweet and refreshing treats for all.
“It’s very festive, and it’s something that people love,” she said. “It gets hot as heck here in Florida, so ice is very refreshing, and the custard is very light.”
The two scouted possible locations from Lake Nona to Clermont, but upon finding a space on South Boyd Street in downtown Winter Garden, they knew it was meant to be. The next closest Rita’s locations are in Lake Buena Vista and Apopka.
Rita’s of Winter Garden opened its doors Dec. 17, and Washington said the excitement surrounding the new addition has been palpable.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “The community outreach and them just coming here has been phenomenal. People are learning about it, they’re hearing about us, we’re getting a lot of our marketing stuff out now, and people are really flocking. They’re like, ‘Oh, we’ve been waiting, this is great!’ They’re very happy to have it here.”
The store’s employees are known as the “Treat Team,” and they are responsible for safely serving up the sweet treats. Throughout the pandemic, mask ordinances and social distancing are required to keep customers safe and healthy, and Treat Team members are fully trained and ready to welcome guests.
Washington said Rita’s offers more than 100 different flavors and combinations, and the Winter Garden location typically serves eight to 10 of those on any given day. Flavors rotate, and fresh ice is made daily. The top flavors, she added, are mango, strawberry and lemon.
“We’ve been making strawberry colada — a piña colada and strawberry mix — and people have been loving that, or a raspberry lemonade or a strawberry lemonade,” Washington said. “People love those combinations of flavors, as well.”
As time goes on, Johnson and Washington hope to be able to partner with local schools and sports teams to do spirit nights and fundraisers. They also offer party packs, which include a souvenir bucket of Italian ice, cups, spoons and a scoop.
Washington added that with the walkable nature of downtown Winter Garden, Rita’s Italian ice and custard are the perfect treats to take on a walk or as a sweet treat following a run or bike ride. According to a Rita’s press release, Johnson and Washington also have plans to potentially open another location in Clermont soon.
“If this is any indication of what the spring and summer is going to bring, this is phenomenal, which is nice to have,” she said of the community response to Rita’s thus far. “I think what I’m most excited about is what it’s bringing to downtown Winter Garden. It brings a new, fresh treat instead of just ice cream.”