Water ice isn't just a summer thing: "We do more sales in January than July," says Richard Trotter, owner of Rosati Italian Water Ice and its brick mixing-and- packaging plant at South Glenwood and East Madison Streets in Clifton Heights.
Rosati sold 22 million water ice cups to schools from here to California, plus 100,000 two-quart "buckets" at groceries like Acme in 2014.
Unlike the popular scooped ice sold from summer stands and trucks, which sits well in a chiller for a day but tends to harden rocklike in a dairy freezer, this packaged ice is mixed and sweetened to keep cold for about 18 months, so it can be stored with ice cream.
School sales are in the blood for Trotter, whose baker forebears supplied soft pretzels to three generations of Philly school kids. In 1997, he bought into Rosati, whose co-owner, Rosemarie Rosati Salomone, the founder's daughter, still lives over the plant.
"Back then, the business model was, you made a gob of money in the summer, you spent a gob in the winter. If the gob in the summer was bigger, you got paid," said Trotter, laughing. Back then, Rosati's production was sold at seasonal stands supplied by the Swedesboro distributor Jack & Jill Ice Cream.
Trotter longed for the school and store trade. But packaged water ice was too often a stringy, corn-syrupy concoction that didn't much recall summer treats from Rita's stand.
Federal school-lunch guidelines showed Trotter would need new formulas so a four-ounce Rosati cup would qualify as a fruit serving. Trotter consulted Al Everetts, of Josie's Water Ice in Kingston, Pa., famous for its flavors.
"The mad scientist. He's the best," Trotter said of Everetts. The company made Everetts a vice president, and "Al reengineered how Italian ice is made," Trotter said.
Juice and sugar replaced flavorings and corn syrup. Sales tripled to $4.5 million by 2005. But the factory and sales force were "stretched thin," Trotter said.
Then two years ago his son Sean moved back to the area with his young family from his job as a California food-service salesman, and went back to work for Rosati.
Sean helped recruit a sales team. Trotter put team members on commission. Sales rose by 33 percent over two years, to $6 million in 2014.
That meant updating the 60-year-old factory. Enter Hamid Seretsy, an Iran-born engineer whose "e-mails come out in graphs, charts, and formulas. I like that," general manager Denis Collier said. "He's not just a book guy. He's hands-on."
That fits well with Rosati's multiethnic 30-person crew. Seretsy recalibrated machine flow to crank more ice from a 10-hour shift.
A big step was signing a contract to supply Acme. Rosati is also in Weis Markets and Sam's Clubs, with specialty flavors like chamoyada, mango swirled with chili sauce for Mexican customers.
School-supply competitors of Rosati's include J&J Snack Foods, the Pennsauken company that makes everything from pretzels to fig bars to frozen treats.
What about Trevose-based Rita's, with its 600 stores and a franchise network?
"What Rita's does is great. But they have to turn their product over every 48 hours," Rich Trotter said. "We are to Rita's what Tastykake is to Dunkin' Donuts."
School-lunch rules have tightened again. Rosati doesn't replace fresh fruit; it makes fruit juices kid-friendly, Sean Trotter says. Rosati has added monthly specials: orange Chillin' Bat for Halloween, Snow Joe for Christmas, Swee'Heart Cherry for Valentine's Day.
They've done a birthday-cake water ice that actually tastes like frosted cake. "Al Everetts did that," Collier said. "His palate is amazing."
What's Collier's favorite flavor? "The Swedish Fish," he said, without hesitation. "I'm not into mangos."