Black Business Spotlight: Corporate backgrounds inform couple’s franchise venture

Rita's Ice
Justin and Desirae Butler MSR News

You don’t have to be Italian to love Italian ices. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t. Accordingly, Justin and Desirae Butler quite arguably have embarked on a can’t-miss enterprise investing in their Rita’s Italian Ice franchise. The overall company has enjoyed national success since 1984 and has partnered with the likes of Nabisco and Cadbury. Add to this auspicious beginning, their combined experience and the Butlers have handsomely hedged their bet.

Justin, co-owner and general manager, held executive positions at Target, GE Capital and Bank of America, leaving the corporate world to better focus on and apply his energies to something considerably closer to home. “I come from a family full of entrepreneurs,” he explains.

“My parents have had a lawn and snow business in Omaha the last 25 years. My grandparents ran a pest control service for over 40 years. My uncle had an art gallery in Atlanta. I was kind of the oddball in the house that went into corporate.”

After attaining an accounting degree at Saint Louis University and graduating Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management as an MBA, the exec eventually assessed that his work in the corporate world wasn’t all that odd after all. “I took a look at all these sorts of things [I’d been doing]. It’s always been consumer [related] – consumer banking, consumer products, etcetera. An opportunity came up, presented itself for me to step out and hang my own shingle. So, I did.”

Desirae does double duty as co-owner and working at a private equity firm as a full-time director of risk and compliance. She has an accounting degree from the University of Delaware and graduated from Wright State University as a master of accountancy.

“We both have strong corporate backgrounds that we bring to the table in managing our own businesses,” she states. “I get to leverage the background and skill set I’ve developed over the course of my career to provide guidance and counsel to our business.”

For good measure, Desirae is a certified public accountant and both are savvy marketing strategists who’ve done their homework. Justin notes that when they lived in Charlotte, North Carolina there was a thriving Rita’s Italian Ice location that they frequently visited.

Rita's Italian Ice
MSR News
“When we moved to the Twin Cities, we were going to build our own [store location] in Woodbury. But, there was one in Eagan which the owner decided to sell. We knew the area’s economics pretty well. We hopped on that so we could [start] quicker. That made the most sense since it was already established instead of building from scratch.”

Desirae adds, “I’ve known about Rita’s since my time at the University of Delaware as it is a staple on the East Coast. We loved the product and the community engagement model of the business as a whole.”

“Rita’s also had a couple [of] business models,” said Justin. “The retail storefront itself plays very well in a suburban setting. In Philadelphia, for example, where they’re headquartered in a more urban environment, they have more kind of pop-up locations, more kind of satellite stands, and [aren’t] attached to a retail or commercial building.”

Here’s where the Butlers add a twist, furnishing their own style of marketing to both consumer bases. Though anchored in Eagan at the Diffley Marketplace, they offer catering and are readily available to do mobile events like carnivals and parades.

“One of the things we are working on is how do we [better] engage the urban community. I’m working on how do I, in one way shape or another hang my shingle in the City of Saint Paul. I’ve met with Parks and Recreation. I’ve met with Amy Brendmoen, who’s president of the city council.”

He’s also gone to the very top brass. “I’ve spoken with [Mayor] Melvin Carter at the UNCF Gala. He said, ‘Look, you’re doing a couple things here, opening a couple of businesses, and I want one in Saint Paul.’

“We’re working on a couple different things. We can operate out of Eagan and still serve the urban [marketplace].” That includes laying the groundwork for a Duck Donuts franchise, which the Butlers expect to have operational after the summer.

Meanwhile, a target venue is Como Zoo, an excellent way to reach urban consumers without waiting for an event to materialize. Importantly, Como Zoo is pocket-friendly to those who want to have a nice outing at a nice price, something Rita’s Italian Ice can accommodate. “One of the reasons I was attracted to Rita’s is the price point itself. A family of four can come in and everyone can get a treat for less than $12.”

All said, you have to like how the odds are stacked in favor of Justin and Desirae making a fine go of it with Rita’s Italian Ice and whatever other ventures may follow.