Curious foodies snatch up free treats at first Rita’s in the region

Nick Schutte, owner of Rita's Italian Ice on McHenry Avenue in Modesto, Calif. offers samples to people waiting in line Monday (01-18-16).
Nick Schutte, owner of Rita's Italian Ice on McHenry Avenue in Modesto, Calif. offers samples to people waiting in line Monday (01-18-16).

Thirteen years ago, Nick Schutte was hitting home runs for Escalon High School. Six years ago, Mr. Pickles took a chance and let the hustling former soda deliveryman open a franchise in Turlock.

On Monday, the 30-year-old Schutte – the new owner of territorial rights for Rita’s Italian Ice stores from Ripon to Merced – gave away treats all day at his first, in Modesto’s Safeway shopping center on McHenry Avenue.

“More will be popping up,” he promised with a big smile. He added, “Just look at this,” motioning to a line of people spilling out the door and down the sidewalk.

Rita’s, headquartered in Pennsylvania, has been around for 30 years and is in expansion mode, with new locations in Asia, the Middle East, Caribbean and throughout California. Schutte’s Modesto store is the first in the San Joaquin Valley, and his contract allows up to six in the area.

The brand has a big following on the East Coast.

Nick Schutte, franchise owner, Rita’s Italian Ice

Mike Ricklick got a taste of Rita’s four years ago in Baltimore while on a trip to Washington, D.C., with students from Prescott Junior High, where he teaches history. He recalls being drawn by people waiting patiently around a kiosk.

“Whenever there’s a line for food, I’m interested,” Ricklick said. “I haven’t had any since, but I remember. It’s unique.”

Italian ice is smooth and sweet, and plenty of Rita’s customers like it layered with frozen custard.

I wasn’t sure about custard mixed with ice, but it’s pretty good.

Brandon Dehart, customer, Modesto

Brandon Keith, who discovered Italian ice in Southern California, noticed Rita’s sign in Modesto weeks ago and had been waiting since to bring family members. “This will be our new little ice cream spot,” he said.

Rita’s is on the northwest corner of Briggsmore and McHenry avenues in a store formerly occupied by a Starbucks, which moved to a spot with a drive-through lane nearby.

After graduating from Escalon High in 2003, Schutte attended Modesto Junior College and worked for Varni Bros. Corp., a Modesto-based company known for its Seven-Up Bottling distributorship. He was in the right place at the right time, he said, to snatch up the Turlock sandwich franchise, which he retains.

600 Rita’s Italian Ice stores, worldwide

1 Rita’s Italian Ice in the San Joaquin Valley

“The price was cheap and they thought I had something to offer,” he said.

Schutte, who lives in Oakdale, said he’s not sure where his next Rita’s will sprout, preferring to get the Modesto store up and running. Monday’s soft opening will be followed by an official grand opening in about a month, he said, with Rita’s tradition of giving away treats for free.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390