Expansion Brings Even Sweeter Success For Rosati's Water Ice It Is What's On The Inside That Counts, And That's What Is Leading The Clifton Heights Company To What May Be Its Best Year Yet.

Posted: July 12, 1998

CLIFTON HEIGHTS — The famous Rosati water ice name is still on the lid, but inside the old Philly favorite is a new twist - an icy blue-raspberry cotton candy swirl - that's been catching the attention of children on a hot summer day.

``Kids buy with their eyes,'' said Rich Trotter, one of four partners who last year bought S.R. Rosati Inc., a water ice company that dates to 1912.

So why hide what's inside, asks Trotter, who's putting a new spin on the slushy treat this summer with such offerings as the blue cotton candy, lemon-lime swirl and mango-pina colada in clear 10-ounce cups instead of the traditional white cups.

Unlike Rita's Water Ice, a Bensalem based-company with 182 franchises in nine states that makes the product at each site, Rosati mass-produces its water ice at its Clifton Heights plant, then sells it in supermarkets and stores and from ice cream trucks.

The new partners are expanding on the vision of Sam Rosati, known as `the king of water ice,'' by selling their product in 90 percent of Philadelphia-area supermarkets and from vending trucks from Missouri to Texas, Trotter said.

For those who buy Rosati's water ice in bulk to dip it themselves, Trotter and his partners - Dave Schumacher of Springfield, Delaware County; John McGrail of St. Davids; and Ken Fleischer of King of Prussia - have introduced a new product. It's smoother, sweeter and more scoopable than traditional water ice. It can be kept in ice-cream freezers and doesn't get rock hard, Trotter said.

Jay Johnson, an owner of Dairy Treat in Prospect Park, said he had been making his own water ice but switched to Rosati's new product a couple months ago.

``Theirs is hands-down better than what I was making,'' he said. ``And I was making a good water ice.''

Trotter, of Perkasie, Bucks County, predicts that this year will be the company's best ever, topping last year's sales of nearly $2 million, he said.

Originally, the water ice was cranked by hand in the basement of Sam Rosati's West Philadelphia home, then sold from a horse-drawn wagon on the city streets.

In the mid-1950s, the company moved to Clifton Heights, settling on East Madison Avenue among the residences in this blue-collar town. Sam Rosati's daughter, Rosemarie Salomone, and her husband, Jim, who started working for the company when he was 12, still live above the plant.

On Tuesday, batches of foaming root beer, blue raspberry and cherry water ice were pumped through the cool, damp plant from vats to batch-type freezers into individual cups.

The basic formula is unchanged, as are some of the faces - including Fred Cichowski of Clifton Heights, a 21-year production worker who was busy pouring syrup into the vats.

Barbara Komorowski of Clifton Heights, a packer in her 19th year with the company, said, ``It's like a big family.''

Rosati's also provided summer jobs for her four children, now ages 24 to 32.

Rosati's has a dozen full-time employees and hires up to 20 more workers - usually high school and college students - during the peak summer months. At its height, the plant pumps out 150,000 to 200,000 cups a day, Trotter said, and operates from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

``We can't make it fast enough,'' Cichowski said.

Linda Miller of Collingdale recently set a company record, packing about 60,000 cups in one day - enough for everyone in Veterans Stadium, quipped Trotter, a fourth-generation soft-pretzel maker who handles Rosati's marketing.

Partner Schumacher keeps an eye on the machinery, which hasn't changed much in 40 years. His wife, Michele, is the Salomones' daughter.

``As we grow the business, we'll automate,'' Trotter said, but not at the expense of longtime workers. ``We take pride in the fact that a lot of our employees can walk to work.''

To show its appreciation to the community, Rosati's opens a little retail store in front of its building on weeknights for local folks to buy the icy desserts. A small hand-dipped scoop is 60 cents; a large is $1.

With about 140 calories in a six-ounce cup, no fat, no lactose and no cholesterol, the treat is popular with adults and children, said Jim Salomone, who sold the business last April.

Both Bob Tumolo of Rita's Water Ice and Trotter of Rosati's say they are not in direct competition.

In addition to water ice, Rita's offers gelati - a water ice-and-custard combo - and a new Misto shake; Rosati's is offering a new product - chocolate-covered bananas - that are being sold at Great Adventure and tested in DisneyWorld.

Rita's has franchises, Trotter said, and ``we sell to everyone in between - corner delis, supermarkets, schools, hospitals. There's plenty of business for everybody.''

He said Rosati's biggest customer is Jack & Jill Ice Cream Co., which sells more than 30,000 10-ounce cups of the water ice a week in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area, Trotter said.

``Last year, we were in 45 percent of supermarkets in the Philadelphia area, Trotter said. ``This summer, we're in over 90 percent. We've really been blessed.''

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