As you may have known from the news, your calendar, but almost certainly not by looking outside, yesterday was the official first day of Spring over on the northern hemisphere. Some of you might have bravely tried to celebrate by throwing an outdoor picnic in defiance of the actual weather. Maybe you started your Spring cleaning. Perhaps you were just generally filled with an unreasonable amount of optimism, hope, and enthusiasm because somewhere underneath your three foot pile of snow, there is a flower ready to bloom.
I made ice.
More specifically, I made 40 buckets x 5 gallons each worth of ice. That’s 200 gallons of ice. I’m not even sure you measure ice in gallons. Once it’s a solid I guess you’re supposed to do weight?
Allow me to explain. If you grew up anywhere in the PA/NJ/DE area, you’ve probably heard of Rita’s Italian Ice. And as the business has continued to grow, your chances of visiting, or at least seeing them with their trademark red and white awning, spread to pretty much all of the east coast US, parts of central and north US, and hell, even the Philippines has a couple now too. My family actually owns and operates three Rita’s Italian Ice franchises here in northern New Jersey. After my parents both lost their jobs, they pooled our family’s money together and we bought our first two stores having never tried or even heard of Rita’s beforehand. None of us had prior food industry or business ownership experience either. We bought the first two five years ago, the third three years ago, and ever since from the months of March to October, we are Rita’s HQ. Our guestroom becomes filled with promotional marketing posters, cases of bottled water, and teeth shattering bulk tons of sugar and flavor syrup. Step too hard on the floor and you’ll hear all of the sprinkles (or jimmies if you’re from Boston) shaking in the bags upon bags we order for our ice cream toppings. For eight months out of the year I never have to worry about where I’ll get my next ice cream, milkshake, sundae, misto, or ice fix. Perks of being part-owner you know.
The grandest and most marketably philanthropic gesture of Rita’s Italian Ice is that every First Day of Spring (what we in the ‘biz call the F.D.O.S.) every Rita’s store (I assume around the world as well) gives out free ice to celebrate the start of Rita’s season. Let me tell you this has been a tradition from way way way back before we bought the stores and no other entity has a grip on the First Day of Spring like Rita’s does. That is our holiday. Our jam. Our claim to fame. Dairy Queen can try to copy us, but pretty much all up and down the East coast, FDOS is Rita’s territory.
As you can imagine, with so much tradition behind it and a huge following, plus the always-enticing appeal of you know, ‘free’, the First Day of Spring can become pretty hectic at a Rita’s. We were grossly and sorely unprepared for our first FDOS. We only had two stores so my mother and father were at the one, and my brother and I were at the other. We had our standard eight different flavors of freshly made Rita’s italian ice (very different from a shaved ice mind you) and figured it’d be just like any other day.
We opened at noon. From opening to closing at 9, the line was never any less than 50 people deep. We had regular employees as well but still, we were running and jumping and scooping ice. My brother was in the back at the ice machine making bucket after bucket and we couldn’t make it faster than people were coming to eat it. To work at a Rita’s you need to be able to scoop and sling ice like nobody’s business. It’s a completely unique product with a very unique texture and character so it’s a signature skill of a Rita’s Treat Team member. When I was running and managing our third store on my own, I would train and time our Team members. If you couldn’t fill a regular sized cup in less than 6 seconds, you were out. On the FDOS, you need to be able to do it in 3. By the end of the day your hands are sticky from all the melted ice and sugar and they’re dyed all sorts of bright colors because of the flavors. Bright blue cotton candy. Brilliant orange colored mango flavored ice. The deep staining red of cherry or Swedish Fish. Green apple. Green obviously. It’s all over you. You try to fight it the first couple times you get splattered but by the end you look like you finished the diabetic version of a color run.
Ever since then I’d like to say we’ve learned, perhaps even perfected the system, to ensure a successful and relatively easy FDOS with minimal setbacks. And yet…you just cannot ever really tell. Yesterday there was still a good four or five inches of snow on the ground and the warmest it ever got was 47 Fahrenheit. Here’s my store’s front at 11:45, fifteen minutes before opening.
Obviously now that we have three stores we are more spread apart. I used to run this location and so I have the most experience here so I was left alone to deal with everything until our first Treat Team member came in at 4. Most of our employees are high schoolers. Here’s what was waiting for me at 11:59, a minute before we opened.
And from then on until closing it did not let up. I had 20 buckets of italian ice already on reserve made over the weekend and still last night I had to make ten more. Sugar and flavor base were flying all over the place. When we all finally finished I had to shake myself like a dog to get all the dust and powder off me.
You know what though…it was still a pretty fun day. I like the rush and the adrenaline and trying to rise up to the challenge of 30 people waiting for their free treat. And as much as Rita’s really is a unique product, the FDOS is a unique experience. One only Rita’s members can really attest to. We tell our members, especially if we hire them in the summer for extra help, you’re not really a part of the team until you’ve survived your first FDOS. Even now with my own career and path, I always take a personal day to help out my family. This business is my parents’ nest egg. We are trying to make sure the stores can generate enough for my parents to save and comfortably rely on later on. It puts food on our table, clothes on our backs, and a roof over our heads. At the end of the night, after we clean the stores and wipe down all the sticky sugary counters and count up the money we made, we all meet up at the local diner and share a celebratory, recuperative meal and share stories of the good, the bad, and the ugly. I didn’t get home until midnight last night, and after washing off all the dye and lotioning up enough to make Buffalo Bill uncomfortable (the constant submerging in water and sugar will dry your skin like nobody’s business) I didn’t get to bed until 3am. I’m exhausted and my legs are so tired from standing and running and moving and lifting those heavy ice buckets all day. I’m half-paying attention to my work and really just hoping to book a conference room and nap. But I would never not be there for the First Day of Spring. I’d never not throw myself into the ring for my family and more importantly, with my family. I’m never going to remember or share stories about the work I had to do for myself the day after. But I will always remember the late dinners my family and I shared on the First Day of Spring.
Man: 223 Loneliness: 33