Ones to Watch | By Sabrina Davis
Creative design was a natural fit for John Ritter’s plan to build a destination premium ice cream store. After 32 years creating animated characters for film, Ritter retired in 1989 to focus on fulfilling his dream of owning an ice cream shop. He envisioned a family gathering place, and that’s just what he created with his trademark round, blue buildings with walk-up windows and patio seating.
“It’s really hard to put into words what he created,” says Bob Ritter, the youngest of John’s six children and CEO of Ritter’s Frozen Custard. “You just went there and relaxed and left everything else behind. It really was a favorite hangout for adults as much as children.”
The first store opened in Franklin, Indiana, in 1990. The Ritters began franchising in 1995.
By 2000 there were 39 round, blue Ritter’s walk-up stores. And as much as loyal followers loved the look (“You didn’t even need a sign to know it was Ritter’s,” Ritter says), the famous design was showing its limitations.
“Having solely walk-up windows, if it rained or snowed or was over 90 degrees, our business would drop,” Ritter says. “Plus, the banks would appraise the buildings at 70 percent of their value, because they were round and had limited use.”
The Ritters launched a new, more traditional 2,100-square-foot store design with indoor seating and a drive-thru window in 2000. The inside seats got little use, but the drive-thru was a hit. “We never expected to see women coming through with kids in the car who would then pull into a parking space to eat the ice cream. Our eyes were really opened to what an opportunity a drive-thru could be,” Ritter says.
In 2002, Ritter’s began offering franchisees the opportunity to retrofit traditional stores with drive-thru windows and later created a new 1,000-square-foot stand-alone prototype with walk-up windows and a drive-thru. “The walk-up experience really is who Ritter’s is,” Ritter says, “so it was important to maintain that.”
There are now 51 Ritter’s Frozen Custards open. Twenty-two operate drive-thru windows. “The drive-thru retrofits tend to drive a 10 percent sales increase,” Ritter says. The drive-thrus help stores overcome rain and intense heat, and they increase daytime traffic. The traditional stores saw most of their business between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
“It goes against everything my father was trying to create, but times have changed, people are on the go and don’t want to have to take time out of their schedule to get out of the car to go get ice cream,” Ritter says.
The store design isn’t all that’s changed since Ritter took the helm in 2004. He has reengineered the franchising program and created new training and operations procedures to better support franchisees. He and his staff have worked to reduce the upfront investment to less than $250,000 for inline stores and less than $700,000 for freestanding units. “We are putting our franchisees in a better position to succeed than we were three years ago.”