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Alfano has owned a Rita's store for more than two decades.

Puerto Rican migrant becomes an award-winning Rita’s Italian Ice franchisee

Hilda Alfano migrated from Puerto Rico in search of better healthcare for her son and become a successful New Jersey business owner

If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.

In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we spoke with Hilda Alfano, who came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico almost four decades ago in search for a better life and better healthcare for her son. Alfano taught herself English, and worked as an office manager for many years before opening her first business with Rita’s Italian Ice in New Jersey, which she has owned for 21 years.

We spoke with Alfano about her migration story, her long-term success, and challenges along the way.

Store count: One store near PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, NJ

A migrant story

I was 18 years old when I came to the United States. I had a son when I was 16 who needed a lot of medical help, and I figure the United States would have that help for him… . The medicine in Puerto Rico was probably 40 years behind in medicine at that time and they did not have what my son needed. So, I came to the United States with $40 in my pocket—my father gave me two $20 bills — and I got on a plane… my son was told in Puerto Rico that he would never walk again, but two years later after therapy and surgeries, he was walking….He’s currently a wonderful adult working at a job he loves, and he’s married and he gave me a granddaughter.  

Her professional background

When we got here, of course there were many struggles, one of them being the language. I did not know a word of English, so I had to learn little by little by watching soap operas and listening to music. I taught myself to read, write, and speak the language. My first job was working at a toy factory, and then from there I went to school to get a license as a paralegal. Then I ended up working at a doctor's office… and that turned out to be 15 years later.

The start of a franchising career

15 years later. I was tired of working so hard for someone else so I figured I would star my own business. Back then the only way to find businesses to buy was through the New Jersey Star Ledger…I found hair salons and nail salons, but was not interested. Then I found this place that was like an ice cream store and I’d never heard of it. The owner was a lady who had just gotten divorced and she met with us. She had ended up with one of the stores and he ended up with the other, but she was not involved with it, so she did not want any part of it. After looking at the numbers and having a long talk, I had a wonderful feeling about it. I didn't have any business sense but I knew this was for me, so I took my life savings and invested it in this store. That was 2003.

Teamwork turned her store around

When I took it over, my store was a very underperforming store. Then one year later, I was named rookie of the year by Rita’s, and from there I got many awards after that. We saw double-digit increase in sales, and right now we are one of the top stores in the system…. I was completely 100% invested financially and emotionally. I would not leave the store: I just was breathing Rita’s and that was my only focus for that first year. I learned so much listening to my employees. I got new employees that were like my family members…. Today I have many of the same employees that were here 15 or 20 years ago. Many of them now have “big boy and girl” jobs as accountants and teachers, but still come here in the summer to work a few hours.

Why one store

Back in 2008 I purchased another store, and it I felt like it took me away from here and I was not giving it my all. So I thought I was spreading myself too thin. I’m very involved with the community, we do all events with the town and high schools. So I decided to not open other stores.

How to pick great people

I’m looking for people with a kind and giving nature…. Those are the qualities that I'm looking for that would fit right in the team that I have here right now… We want kids that come in and they're eager to learn. We ask them questions such as why you want to work here, somebody answered the other day, they said I've been dreaming about working here since I was a little girl, and those are the answers that we're looking for. That’s why she’s working with us right now…. We can teach them how to make ice, and how to make a custard. We cannot teach them how to have this common sense and kindness.

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