Jerry Crissman sells smiles by the cupful.
Crissman owns Rita’s Ice in Newport News and Hampton. And every time he hands a cup of Italian Ice to a customer, he knows he has made that person happy.
“It is fun,” he says. “I really do enjoy it.”
Crissman has owned the Warwick Boulevard location since 2006 and the Hampton store since 2013. Each store is different. The Newport News Rita’s has walk-up windows and people eat their treats outside. It is closed during the winter. The Hampton store, located on Mercury Boulevard, is a walk-in and has a drive through and is open all year.
A retired Air Force colonel, Crissman had been working as a financial advisor when he had a moment of reflection and knew his life needed to change. He was at home one night, watching a video of his retirement ceremony. During it, his commander kept saying, “Don’t lose your sense of humor.”
“It dawned on me at that moment I had lost my sense of humor,” Crissman says. “That’s when I started my exit strategy and began looking at different franchises.”
Crissman had a friend who suggested Rita’s. He started looking into it, and after eating a mango gelato and loving it, he decided it was the perfect business for him to regain himself—and his sense of humor. He had worked at Dairy Queen in his youth, so he knew immediately what was involved and the potential for fun.
“Rita’s suited me,” he says. “It just felt right.”
Rita’s was already up and running in Newport News. He proposed an offer to the owner and she sold it to him. He worked hard to improve the atmosphere and renovate the building. By the end of his first season, he had improved sales 65 percent. The next year, sales rose another 27 percent.
The Newport News Rita’s is a destination for people looking for an old-fashioned good time. It is popular with CNU students and families alike. Teenagers ride their bikes there and couples frequent it as a good spot for a date.
“They typically enjoy a nice evening, sitting outside,” he says. “It’s a 30-minute vacation when they come.”
Over the years, Rita’s has added flavors, some seasonal, and different types and treats. The most popular flavor is mango, Crissman says. There are 80 flavors on the rotation. All of the Italian ice is prepared on site and has a 36-hour shelf life.
“It’s quick service with a good product,” he says. “People know what to expect.”
The business at the Newport News store is heavily dependent on weather and conditions. Cold springs and rainy days are not Crissman’s favorite times. But hot sunny days and beautiful evenings make Rita’s shine. The store also does bulk sales and tours.
“A lot depends on the time of year, the weather and the time of the week,” he says.
Crissman is a model of success in the Rita’s franchise, and his stores serve as a satellite campus for Cool University, which allows new owners to learn the business. There are 650 Rita’s around the world.
Crissman, who commutes from Chesapeake daily, recently agreed to continue his relationship with Rita’s for many more years. His wife, Marsha, operates the Hampton store. He takes great pride in his stores, and many days, even when the Newport News store is closed, he is there, making improvements, such as painting and cleaning.
There is little doubt that he found the right fit. His sense of humor has come back. “It’s been fun,” he says with a smile. “I’m a people person. I’m hands on.”
TO THE POINT:
Rita’s Italian Ice
Address: 12286 Warwick Blvd.,
Newport News, 23606
Contact: Jerry Crissman, owner