At first glance, having one customer account for a majority of a small business' sales would seem like a good problem to have. Keep that customer happy, and it will be a stable source of revenue.
But many entrepreneurs would tell you that nothing keeps them up at night more than worrying about what might happen to their business should that big customer walk away someday.
Certainly, that was on Rich Trotter's mind when the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Co. and its fleet of ice cream trucks accounted for 90 percent of the annual sales of S.R. Rosati Inc., which he bought with some partners 16 years ago.
Today, Trotter said he sleeps better because the 101-year-old water-ice manufacturer he owns in Clifton Heights generates the bulk of its sales from a different source: the cafeterias of hundreds of public schools in 35 states.
Because Rosati Ice is made from 100 percent fruit juice, the company has been able to get its four-ounce cups of water ice onto school lunch trays under U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition standards. Trotter said sales to the "child nutrition industry" amounted to 55 percent of Rosati's $5 million in sales for 2012.
Trotter, 57, said the expansion of the school business had made Rosati less dependent on how hot the weather outside might be. This year, its January sales surpassed last July's sales for the first time, he said.
Cultivation of the school lunch channel has also enabled Trotter to provide a constant flow of work for the Delaware County factory to keep 20 people employed full-time year-round. The workforce expands to 35 people during the summer months, when production peaks.
One of those products is a new four-quart Party Pail that marked Rosati's return to the area's supermarket freezers this spring for the first time in about five years. Rosati struck an exclusive arrangement with Acme Markets to sell the tub of water ice in 2013, but Trotter said he was hoping to sell through other grocery chains in 2014.
Rosati may lag in name recognition behind the more widespread Rita's Water Ice, but that's OK with Trotter, who comes from a family of soft-pretzel makers. "We think Rita's is great because Rita's has raised awareness of the product," he said.
But Trotter, whose many hats include president and chief salesman, won't relegate the taste of Rosati Ice behind Rita's or any other competitor: "We are to Rita's what Entenmann's is to Dunkin' Donuts."
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