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Frozen custard

Frozen custard from Rita’s Italian Ice. Photo via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

The year is only three days old and already another new franchise is set to come to Coney Island in 2014. Rita’s Italian Ice, a company whose tag line is “Ice, Custard and Happiness” will open a store on Surf Avenue in Coney Island. Broker Joe Vitacco tells ATZ he signed a lease with a Rita’s franchise owner for the 1,500 square foot space at 1329 Surf Avenue, on the corner of Surf and West 15th Street. The store is located across the street from Nathan’s and Williams Candy and is expected to be open seasonally, probably from March through October. The current tenant, a social club, will move next door.

Rita’s menu offers Italian ice, frozen custard, layered gelati, sundaes with a choice of 20 toppings, sugar-free treats, and trademark items that blend Italian ice with frozen custard.

Frozen custard is of course one of the lost delights of Coney Island. The dessert made its debut in 1919 when the Kohr brothers opened a stand on the Coney Island Boardwalk. The nickel treat was a sensation, selling 18,460 cones on the first weekend!

sundae with toppings

Frozen custard sundae with toppings from Rita’s Italian Ice. Photo via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

Kohr’s Frozen Custard is still in business on the Boardwalks at Seaside Heights and Casino Pier on the Jersey Shore but Kohr’s has shown no interest in making a Coney Island comeback. Businesses in Coney Island which sell ice cream, gelato and soft serve haven’t made any move to bring back frozen custard either, despite the recommendations of old-timers. It’s ironic that thanks to a popular international chain headquartered in Trevose, Pennyslvania, we can look forward to the return of this treat to its place of origin and the celebration of National Frozen Custard Day on August 8th.

Rita’s has over 600 outlets in 21 states and is the latest of a growing number of national and international franchises and chains leasing space on high-priced Surf Avenue in the new Coney Island.

Back in 2012, ATZ asked “Will Coney Island’s Surf Ave Become a Mecca for Franchises?” (December 19, 2012). Clearly, the answer is yes. Like attracts like. In 2014, Johnny Rockets, Red Mango and Subway Cafe, which are currently under construction, will join It’Sugar, Applebee’s, Popeye’s, Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins and Subway on the main drag of Coney’s amusement district. Also on Surf and in a category unto themselves are Nathan’s original 1916 store, which is a year-round magnet for tourists, and Brooklyn-grown Grimaldi’s Pizzeria.

According to the franchise’s website, Rita’s is the world’s largest Italian ice concept and opened its first international outlet in October in Shenzhen, China. The franchisor for Southern China plans to open 31 outlets over 10 years.

Rita's Italian Ice

Rita’s Italian Ice, Yonkers, NY Store. Via Facebook.com/RitasItalianIceCompany

In the New York metro area, Rita’s year-round locations are on Broadway at 92nd Street in Manhattan –the only store in New York City–and several locations in New Jersey, including Hoboken, and the Izod Center and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. The majority of stores in New York and neighboring states such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennyslvania are open seasonally from March through October. Investment firm Falconhead Capital LLC owns a controlling interest in Rita’s, which was founded in 1984 as a Mom-and-Pop product sold from a porch window in Philadelphia.

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Related posts on ATZ…

December 31, 2013: Amusing the Zillion’s Coney Island 2013 Year in Review

September 11, 2013: Subway Cafe to Replace Furniture Store on Coney Island’s Surf Ave

February 13, 2013: Thor’s Coney Island: Candy Retailer It’Sugar to Open Surf Ave Store

January 28, 2012: Lost Delights of Coney Island: Frozen Custard

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north side of Surf Avenue, Coney Island

1,700 sq foot Subway Cafe with Tuscany-style interior coming to this building at 1019 Surf Avenue. Photo © Tricia Vita

Last year ATZ asked “Will Coney Island’s Surf Ave Become a Mecca for Franchises?” (December 19, 2012). The latest in a slew of chains and franchisees betting on the new, year-round Coney Island is a Subway Cafe with a “Tuscany-style interior” featuring sofas and a fireplace. Broker Joe Vitacco signed a lease yesterday with the restaurant chain for the 1,700 square foot cafe at 1219 Surf Avenue across the street from Luna Park.

Just how pricey is Coney Island’s Surf Avenue? The building at 1019-1039 Surf was purchased for $3.1 million by 1019 Surf Ave Acquisition LLC in March for $3.1 million, according to Property Shark. Vitacco says the buyer was Russian multi-millionaire Yakov Yakubov, who also owns Loehmann’s Plaza in Brooklyn.

First introduced as a restaurant concept in 2008, the Subway Cafe’s decor and layout aim for a “coffeehouse ambiance” and is a little larger than an average Subway. The north side of Surf Avenue already has a Subway, located down the street in Stillwell Terminal, but it does not sell coffee. In addition to Subway sandwiches, the new cafe’s expanded menu includes baked goods, dessert items and coffee offerings. Part sandwich shop, part coffee bar, the Subway Cafe will be operated by franchisees with its lease held by the Subway Restaurant chain. They will take possession of a portion of the storefront occupied by the 11,000 square foot Lago Furniture. The furniture shop is on a month-to-month lease while tenants are sought for the rest of the space, Vitacco said.

Subway Cafe

Interior of one of the Subway Restaurant Chain’s Subway Cafes. The concept debuted in 2011

The furniture shops on the north side of Surf have long been in violation of the C-7 amusement zoning and are gradually being replaced by restaurants and bars. Dunkin’ Donuts (also in Stillwell Terminal), Coney Island Bar & Grill (formerly Bratva), Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, and Applebee’s will be joined next year on the north side of Surf by Johnny Rockets and Red Mango and Subway Cafe. As we noted last year, rides and amusement businesses aren’t about to make a comeback due to the skyrocketing rents since the rezoning. “I’m getting more inquiries than ever before,” said Vitacco, who would like to bring a seafood and steak restaurant to the neighborhood. “It means that people are thinking about it. But I call half the people I talk to tourists.”

Until the early 1980′s the north side of Surf Avenue was home to individually-owned penny arcades and a variety of rides including bumper cars, carousels and even a Jumbo Jet-style coaster. Philips Candy Store, now located in Staten Island, was the anchor of Stillwell Terminal from 1930 until 2000 when the terminal was rebuilt and they had to move out. By the time the last ride– Coney Island’s B & B Carousell —closed in 2005, the north side was known as the wrong side of Surf Avenue to locate a business because of the lack of foot traffic.

Sky Rapids Ride

Sky Rapids Ride at 1223 Surf Avenue and Arcade at 1217 Surf Ave. Coney Island. January 1, 1979. Photo by Abe Feinstein via Coney Island History Project

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Surf Avenue

Surf Avenue Panoramic, North side of Surf, Mermaid Parade 2008. Photo © Whiskeygonebad/Anthony Catalano via flickr

Coney Island, the birthplace of the hot dog and the enclosed amusement park is famous for its quirky authenticity, but it’s about to look and taste more like Anyplace USA. Three national franchises– Applebee’s, Johnny Rockets and Red Mango–have signed leases for the north side of Surf Avenue.

Broker Joe Vitacco tells ATZ, “We rented 8,000 square feet to the Johnny Rockets franchisee. He will use 6,000 square feet for the Johnny Rockets and the remaining 2,000 square feet for another national franchise, Red Mango.” The building next door, 1217, will be built out to the lot-line on Surf for Applebee’s, he said. The restaurants will activate long vacant properties next to Stillwell Terminal, which already has a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins and a Subway and is getting a Checkers hamburger chain. Is the north side of Surf Avenue destined to become a mecca for franchises?

Lot at 1223 Surf Avenue next to Stillwell Terminal and 1217 Surf Avenue. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

Red Mango is a frozen yogurt franchise started “many, many spoons ago” (in 2007) in Los Angeles that now has 190 locations nationwide. According to a company press release, it is one of the fastest growing retailers of all-natural nonfat frozen yogurt and fresh fruit smoothies. Johnny Rockets touts itself as “The Original Hamburger” though it was founded in 1986, also in L.A. According to their corporate website the chain has “about 300 corporate and franchise-owned restaurants in 30 states and 16 countries, including 30 Six Flags amusement park locations and 11 Royal Caribbean cruise ships.” In the New York area, the store can be found at 56th Street, South Street Seaport and Yankee Stadium and in Glendale and Forest Hills in Queens, as well as in New Jersey at Newport Centre Mall and in Hoboken. Applebee’s has almost 2,000 locations nationwide and the franchisee already owns 40 restaurants in the New York area.

For the record, the franchisees’ leases are with the individual property owners of 1217 and 1223 Surf Avenue and NOT with Thor Equities. Thor CEO Joe Sitt does not own any property on the north side of Surf east of Stillwell Avenue. Thor’s holdings are on the south side of Surf. The news about Johnny Rockets and Applebee’s has long been rumored because franchisees had first looked into renting Thor Equities vacant new building at Surf and Stillwell, where prices are said to be sky high. Rents on the north side of Surf are about a third as much as Thor’s properties on the south side, a source tells ATZ, with a space on the north side renting for $75,000 and a comparable one in Thor’s building with an asking price of $250,000.

Across the street is Nathan’s, which got its start in Coney Island in 1916 and whose original location is a year-round tourist destination. “In total, Nathan’s products are marketed for sale in over 40,000 locations,” according to the company’s website. Also on the south side of Surf Avenue is Popeye’s Chicken, which is popular with locals and whose franchisee owner has been in business year-round in Coney Island for nearly thirty years.

Nathan's Coney Island

Coney Island Post-Sandy: The original Nathan’s at Surf and Stillwell is Closed Till Spring. Photo © Tricia Vita via flickr

Vitacco has been actively marketing properties in Coney Island to potential franchisees and independent restaurateurs alike, as well as to other businesses, for many years. It has been a tough sell, with 14 months of red tape at 1223 Surf, which is owned by Fox 18 Realty, LLC, due to the property being adjacent to the MTA. Hooters, Outback Steak House and a seafood restaurant are on his get list. “What would you like to see?” he asked when we said we weren’t a fan of franchises.

How about a club with a wave-riding machine? Turns out Body Glove Swimwear had come to him with an idea for a cafe, retail and surf machine, but nothing ever came of it. In addition to an all-season surfing venue, ATZ’s Big Wish List for the New Coney Island includes a pinball arcade museum, Fascination, frozen custard and a Mangels Whip ride. “The reason it is better to have franchisees is the franchise company has to approve the area, location and lease,” says Vitacco, who believes that Coney Island is a fantastic location. “They have done all of their homework and are experts at analyzing a location.”

While some of our Coney Island friends approve of any new business coming to vacant land and the jobs that it will create, others are critical: “At least Johnny Rockets sort of fits the vibe. But who needs a fake diner when there’s a real one?! (Tom’s),” says Coney Island regular and writer Tara Cox. “In my personal vision for Coney, they should give small, unique business owners the chance to thrive and keep the spirit alive. The whole area will benefit. And what a novelty it would be — a land where there’s only small, interesting and personal businesses.”

Sky Rapids Ride

Sky Rapids Ride at 1223 Surf Avenue and Arcade at 1217 Surf Ave. Coney Island. January 1, 1979. Photo by Abe Feinstein via Coney Island History Project

Until the early 1980′s the north side of Surf Avenue was home to individually-owned penny arcades and a variety of rides including bumper cars, carousels and even a Jumbo Jet-style coaster. Philips Candy Store, now located in Staten Island, was the anchor of Stillwell Terminal from 1930 until 2000 when the terminal was rebuilt and they had to move out. By the time the last ride– Coney Island’s B & B Carousell —closed in 2005, the north side was known as the wrong side of Surf Avenue to locate a business because of the lack of foot traffic. It was mostly furniture stores named after amusement parks. Rides aren’t about to make a comeback due to the high rent, but things began looking up last summer with the opening of the popular Grimaldi’s Pizzeria on the north side of Surf.

Some kind of formula business restriction such as the one in San Francisco, which bans chains in some neighborhoods and regulates them almost everywhere else, would create opportunities for small, independent businesses and prevent Surf Avenue from becoming a strip of franchises. During the hearings leading up to the July 2009 rezoning, a number of individuals and organizations including the Pratt Center for Community Development recommended adopting a formula business restriction policy within Coney East to prevent national retailers and fast food restaurants from locating there. Of course that didn’t happen because the zoning was written to attract these very businesses to Coney Island.

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February 13, 2013: Thor’s Coney Island: Candy Retailer It’Sugar to Open Surf Ave Store

December 24, 2012: In Thor’s Coney Island, Discount on Retail Ride of a Lifetime

August 10, 2012: Steeplechase Plaza Under Construction in Coney Island

June 23, 2012: Opening Today: Coney Island Grimaldi’s Pizzeria

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