Reporter's Notebook

"Idol" hands Rita's an opportunity

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There will be a lot more news from Trevose, Pa.-based Rita’s Italian Ice in my upcoming story in the April 15 print edition of Nation’s Restaurant News — the chain’s Rita’s Rewards mobile-loyalty app and an Instagram contest make it the poster child for the convergence of social, mobile and local marketing — but I wanted to quickly point out a smart cause-marketing initiative from Rita’s as well.

Last week, 625-unit Rita’s presented a $10,000 donation to the Stuttering Foundation. The chain became involved in supporting the foundation by way of leveraging its promotion of “American Idol” contestant Lazaro Arbos, a former Rita’s employee, or “Treat Team” member. Arbos has been a fan favorite this season, making it to the final nine contestants left on “Idol,” and has inspired many by overcoming a stutter. 

“Idol” judges and viewers saw that Arbos daily must work past his stutter and that his speech impediment goes away when he sings. 

Naturally, Rita’s has called as much attention to Arbos as it can through its far-reaching media tools, notably by supporting him and reminding customers on the Rita’s Facebook page to vote for Arbos during “Idol” broadcasts. Special pink T-shirts have been made in honor of Arbos’ favorite menu item, strawberry lemonade ice, that also feature his signature bow tie. 

But the support of the Stuttering Foundation with last week’s donation really cinches what’s turned out to be an incredibly fortuitous marketing opportunity for Rita’s. Arbos no doubt is a talented singer and deserves to be in the mix for “American Idol’s” finals — his audition with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was genuinely great — but what really moves people about him is his quest to triumph over his stutter and how music gives him the opportunity to communicate with people more easily than talking ever has. Were Rita’s to promote him in a “Hey, vote for our guy” kind of way, without acknowledging how Arbos is serving as a role model for other stutterers and calling attention to how people can help those with speech impediments, it would seem hollow. 

“We couldn’t be more proud of Lazaro and we appreciate all Rita’s fans who voted for him,” Tom Christopoul, chairman of Rita’s Italian Ice, said during the check presentation. “We encourage others like Lazaro to find their voice and are pleased to donate $10,000 to the Stuttering Foundation on behalf of Lazaro Arbos in support of his determination and strength. Our entire Rita’s family is pulling for Lazaro and we wish him continued success!”

Stuttering Foundation president Jane Fraser remarked that the charity and the people it serves were “touched by the kindness” of Rita’s and its franchisees.

“The courage of Lazaro Arbos, combined with the generosity of companies like Rita’s, allows us to continue our mission of helping those who stutter and their families and educating the public about the myths and mysteries of stuttering,” Fraser said.

As I alluded to up top, readers will see over the next few weeks how well Rita’s is promoting itself, but it also just showed the right time to step back and let other people hold the spotlight, not for the sake of selling more desserts, but for supporting a cause. It’s a lesson most restaurant brands already know, but this is another example of how it’s done right.

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