Making It
Flavored ice makes for a hot business

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, March 8, 2009

When Charnita Brock Walker was a business student at Penn State in the late 1980s, she often visited friends in Philadelphia. And it was there that the Washington native got hooked on Rita's Water Ice. "It was just something different," she says. "The flavors taste really real."

Over the years, Charnita made a point of stopping at a Rita's for an Italian ice whenever she was in Philadelphia. She tried the gelati, which she decided were just as good. She was intrigued by the fact that the business was closed in the cold months. "Wow, that would be really great," she thought to herself.

For more than a decade, while she worked as an operations manager in the D.C. public schools, Charnita, 40, kept the idea of Rita's, and the fact that Washington didn't have one, in the back of her mind. Finally, she decided to research opening a franchise. "I just believed in the product, and I believed in myself," she says. But she soon realized she didn't have enough money to open a store on her own.

One day, Charnita was telling her sister, Angela Brock, 50, about Rita's. "I wasn't even inviting her to be a part of it," Charnita recalls. After all, Angela, who worked in private industry as a procurement manager and had a side business in real estate, had never even tried Rita's. But she trusted Charnita's excitement and research, and when Charnita took her to a Maryland Rita's to taste the ice, Angela told her it was a winner and that she'd join the enterprise. "I just thought it was absolutely wonderful, a phenomenal product," Angela says. "I ate one there and took one away with me."

In August 2005, the sisters opened a store on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast Washington, paying a $25,000 franchise fee and $300,000 in start-up costs with the aid of a Small Business Administration loan. The sisters took turns taking leave from their jobs to cover that first, short season. In 2006, their first full season of March to October, Angela, who lives in Bowie and has a daughter, quit her corporate job so she could devote her days to Rita's and her weekends to real estate. Charnita, who lives in Northwest Washington with her husband, a federal employee, continued to work for the school system during the day and at Rita's at night and on weekends.

It was an uphill battle; most nearby residents had never tasted water ice. "We've given away so much free product," Charnita says, supplying it to school and camp events and Pop Warner football teams. She describes their strategy as, "The product is so good, once you get it in someone's mouth, they'll be back." In 2007, "people caught on to the idea," and revenue jumped from $350,000 to $425,000, making their store's sales among the top 10 of the 600 Rita's in the country. Sales were slightly lower in 2008 as the economy suffered, but still high enough to stay in the top 10. Also in 2008: Charnita left her school system job, and the sisters opened a second store, in Adams Morgan, where they are again educating potential customers about Italian ice.

Charnita says their profit is about 25 percent, from which they pay themselves a small salary each, putting the rest back into the business. "I'm actually working more hours than I was putting in in my regular job," Charnita says. "But this is so much more satisfying, because I'm getting the benefit."

Plus, she has several months off.

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