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Rita’s, known for East Coast water ice, lands in Henderson

Robin Dobbs holds a bowl of frozen custard as her husband Irving takes a bite at Rita’s Green Valley, a custard and Italian ice shop in Henderson, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012. Rita’s, on Stephanie Street just north of Sunset Road, is the first Nevada franchise of a popular East Coast chain that originated in Bensalem Township, Penn.

Rita's Italian Ice in Henderson

Owners Robin and Irving Dobbs pose with frozen custard at Rita's Green Valley, a custard and Italian ice shop in Henderson, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012. Rita's, on Stephanie Street just north of Sunset Road, is the first Nevada franchise of a popular East Coast chain that originated in Bensalem Township, Penn. Launch slideshow »

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Not as watery as a Slurpee, with a smoother consistency than a snow cone.

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It took three years to get here, but Rita's Water Ice has landed, and is thriving, in Nevada.

"We're crowded every day because of the uniqueness of the product," said Irving Dobbs, co-owner of the Henderson Italian ice and frozen custard shop.

Rita's is a Pennsylvania-based chain known for its Italian ice, or "water ice," as East Coasters call it. While the product resembles a smooth snow cone, it is made from real fruit.

The shop also sells frozen custard, which is thicker and creamier than ice cream. Its top-selling treat is gelati, Italian ice topped with custard.

"Yes, you have snow cones, and, yes, you have shaved ice, but there was nothing that we know of that was ice like this," Dobbs said.

Dobbs and his wife, Robin, both natives of the northeast, approached Rita's — a big-time refreshment player with more than 550 locations in 19 states — three years ago about the possibility of opening a shop in the Las Vegas area. It was around the same time they bought a house and settled here. Both worked in the auto industry.

"They said no," Irving Dobbs said. "That market was not open."

The couple didn’t give up. A year later, the two again approached Rita's. Again, they were turned down.

Then, 18 months ago, the couple finally got the green light. The Rita's chain decided to pursue a West Coast expansion.

The Dobbs' franchise agreement took close to four months to negotiate. Irving Dobbs declined to provide details about the agreement or the couple's investment, but Rita's says it requires franchisees to have a minimum of $250,000 in liquid capital, a net worth of $750,000 and a credit score of 700 or better.

"It's a substantial investment," Irving Dobbs said.

Once a contract was negotiated, Rita's provided support and acted as a partner in scouting potential shop locations.

"They had a huge say in location," Irving Dobbs said. "They wanted the right spot, the right neighborhood."

He said the couple and Rita's searched for high-traffic areas. The Dobbses also sought a community feel.

"We want to make sure we provide great service and get to know people in the neighborhood," Irving Dobbs said.

They settled on a storefront at 693 N. Stephanie St. in Whitney Ranch, in a Target-anchored shopping center across the street from the Galleria mall. The Henderson Rita's opened July 2.

The store fills with customers who mull over 12 to 16 water ice flavors that change seasonally. Many linger in front of the store to chat and dig into their treats.

Inside, the Dobbses and their 15 employees greet customers and hand out dozens of free samples.

Some customers know the water ice well; others are new to it.

"It's different," said 16-year-old Hayley Canaday. "The custard is totally different from ice cream."

Laura Andrews, 18, and Mike Floyd, 20, tried the Italian ice after a friend from Philadelphia told them about Rita's. Andrews, a first-time customer, described the experience in one word: fantastic.

"You can tell they actually care about their customers," Andrews said, eating spoonfuls of Black Cherry Island Fusion after she and Floyd chatted with Irving Dobbs. "That's hard to find."

The business has been such a success so far, the couple want to expand. They hope to open two or three more Rita's franchises locally over the next few years.

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