Although Peggy Loftus could barely balance a checkbook and knew "zlich" about ice cream, she decided to open a Baskin-Robbins franchise after a futile search to find a job in her field of speech pathology.

It hasn't all been peaches 'n' cream - sometimes it's a rocky road - admits the 33-year-old mother of three who opened her Gaithersburg store six months ago. Her biggest crisis came the day the electricity went out threatening a major "melt down" of 150 tubs in 31 flavors.

"But I've always wanted to run my own business," says Loftus, who discovered she has a flair for decorating ice-cream cakes and whose store is beginning to show a profit. "I absolutely love it."

Although Loftus worked a seven-day week when she first opened the store, she now puts in about 40 hours a week. On weekdays she gets to the store about 8 a.m. and is home by 3:30 p.m., soon after her first-grader returns from school. Either she or her husband Jim returns to the store about 9 p.m. to supervise the store-closing.

Operating a franchise is an ideal way for women to enter the business world, says Pat Burr, the Small Business Administration's associate administrator for management assistance. Since women often lack capital and management experience, the training, marketing expertise, advertising support and proven product offered by reputable franchisers reduce the entrepreneur's risk of failure.

"I really think that a woman who can handle all the emergencies that exist in running a home and raising children, also can run a business," says Ann Person, president of Stretch and Sew, Inc, which has more than 200 franchise outlets. "One of my greatest fears was what will the bank say? Then I realized that all the bank really cared about was the bottom line and whether I was making money or not."

Franchising continues to break new records in sales, employment and number of establishments, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. An estimated 492,000 franchised establishments include everything from Roto-Rooter, to Frosty Frog, Beef-A-Roo and Turf-O-Matic.

Investigate before you invest, cautions Jim Molloy, a professor of small business at Northeastern University who will be running several workshops on women and franchising for the Small Business Administration this summer.

Prospective franchisees should be prepared for hard work and financial risk, and should consider whether they are qualified for the particular franchise that interests them, he said. Molloy offers these additional tips:

Evaluate the company. How old is it, what kind of reputation does it have, what is it status in its industry?

Ask for a financial statement of the company's profit record. If they refuse, walk away!

Find out what kind of training is offered. Successful franchisers consider proper training an essential responsibility and will instruct you in all aspects of the business, from handling the product to writing employe's paychecks.

Study carefully the terms of the agreement. Does the franchiser research the outlet location and provide architects for construction? To what extent will the company take a percentage of your goes earnings, and what are your resale rights?

Ask what services the company will provide. Will the franchiser provide advertising and promotional materials as an extension of the national or regional program, or is it soley at your expense?

Visit a franchise or two and talk to the operator. Discussions with the owner may provide vital information on how the company relates to franchisees.

For further information contact the International Franchise Association at 659-0790 or the Washington area office of the Small Business Administration at 653-6980.

A Franchise Opportunities Handbook listing hundreds of equal-opportunity franchisers and providing a brief summary of the terms, requirements and conditions under which franchises are avaliable may be obtained by sending a check for $5.50, made payable to the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. CAPTION: Picture, Peggy Loftus, by Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post