In Philly, the surest sign of spring isn’t cherry blossom buds or daffodil sprouts — it’s the bouquets of red-and-white striped cups sprouting from people’s hands. No matter the weather, the first day of spring means free Rita’s water ice.
The frozen treat company founded by Philadelphia firefighter Bob Tumolo has been ushering in the warmer seasons with freebies for 25 years now.
Back then, the world was a very different place. In late March 1992, Microsoft had just released Windows 3.1. Bill Clinton had smashed opponents in Super Tuesday Democratic presidential primaries, forcing people to consider the prospect that he might have the potential to beat incumbent George H.W. Bush. Ed Rendell had been sworn in as mayor a few months prior and Charles Barkley was a couple months from getting traded to the Phoenix Suns. Rita’s, which Tumelo had begun franchising in 1989, was about to add custard to its dessert lineup for the very first time.
But some things haven’t changed at all. There are 10 Rita’s flavors that have been offered for all 25 years of the promotion:
- Mint Chocolate Chip
- Root Beer
Some of these are obvious. Cherry, lemon and chocolate are water ice canon, and pineapple is also traditional. Root beer is a crowd-pleaser, something that appeals to kids and grandpas alike. Watermelon, strawberry and vanilla? Classic candy flavors. But think about how exotic “mango water ice” must have seemed a quarter century ago.
Maybe that added to its appeal; turns out mango is still one of Rita’s top five best-selling flavors, out of more than 50 on the menu.
Last year, Rita’s gave out nearly 1 million cups of water ice. With 600-plus locations in more than 25 states, it’s on track to beat that record again this year. So no matter how long the lines are for free cups on March 20, just remember: Sure you’re doing it for the slushy sugar rush, but also to strengthen the reputation of a Philly-born brand.