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Former church planter drives Tasti D-Lite, Planet Smoothie growth in North Texas
Chris Beattie/Staff Photo - Planet Smoothie/Tasti D-Lite owner Blair Ritchey preps smoothie samples before the morning rush at the combo-shop in McKinney. Ritchey, in ministry for 36 years, co-branded the store in late July.
From sermons to soft-serve to smoothies, shift has been the theme of Blair Ritchey's recent life.
This summer, as the North Texas developer for Tasti D-Lite, he converted the McKinney Planet Smoothie into a mix of healthy treats. After 36 previous years in Christian ministry, his daily lingo has certainly changed - the Gospel to "Grape Ape" - but his serviceable approach remains.
"I'm really enjoying the transition," said Ritchey, who moved to the area from Pennsylvania in 1985 to plant churches. "It's different for me, personally, but it gives me an opportunity to impact the community from inside the marketplace."
Ritchey started Collin Creek Community Church in Plano. He became district overseer for The Wesleyan Church, which had invited him and his wife to the area for the planting.
But last summer after a personal crisis, he said, his career segway commenced. "I came out of it recognizing that I needed to step away from the ministry for a while," he said.
A good friend had introduced him to Jim Amos, CEO of Franklin, Tenn.-based Tasti D-Lite, and the company attracted Ritchey "from the top down," he said. Ritchey, who credits "relationships and networking" for his business immersion, soon became the company's area developer.
"Being a church planter, I always had an entrepreneurial bend," he said. "I loved to start things, serve and become part of communities, so community engagement is one of the things I'm strong at, know and understand."
Atlanta-based Planet Smoothie, which has stores across the southeastern U.S., opened its McKinney store in 2009 on the northwest corner of U.S. Highway 380 and Highway 75. Sales dipped after a solid launch, Ritchey said, and the store closed this past March.
Tasti D-Lite bought out Planet Smoothie late last year, and Ritchey's ownership group bought and reopened the McKinney store in May.
"They were transitioning out and I saw the potential of the store and wanted to learn more about the Planet Smoothie brand," Ritchey said. "It was a great opportunity to buy a store and work from the inside out, from the ground level up."
An ability to co-brand became obvious to Amos, and joining smoothies with soft-serve was next. In July, some of the 24 Planet Smoothie stores in Central Florida began the process for also selling Tasti D-Lite products.
Store remodeling included adding soft-serve ice cream machines and a toppings bar, and separately branding the day-night concepts. Tasti D-Lite offers 80 different flavors to go along with Planet Smoothie's 30 smoothie flavors, said Donna Smith, vice president of marketing for Planet Smoothie/Tasti D-Lite.
Ritchey, whose group also owns a Tasti D-Lite store off Hillcrest in Dallas, set forth the combo from both sides. That combo is set to officially open this month.
"You have a smoothie crowd that loves (smoothies) for breakfast, lunch, midday snack and sometimes an evening or after-school bump, but by and large, after 6 p.m. the smoothie crowd dies out," Ritchey said. "The ice cream crowd comes for dessert, after the game or movie, so we saw it as a way to maximize the day traffic for our stores."
Because the combination requires "a bit of a cost," he said it is up to each franchise owner whether he or she wants to convert. Jason Mann, the Orlando, Fla.-area director told the Orlando Business Journal in July that remodeling his 1,050-square-foot store would cost around $60,000-$80,000.
Ritchey's stores are the only two in Texas with the co-brand conversion complete. Four others - three in the Nashville, Tenn. area and one in New York City - are up and running. Several others, including the Orlando stores, are in the build-out stages, and about 20 owners are considering the combination, Smith said.
"It provides us the opportunity to expand our products for current customers and to attract new customers," she said. "It gives them additional options to choose from and increases their satisfaction with the store."
Ritchey has development rights to Collin, Cook, Dallas, Denton and Grayson counties, and plans to use the McKinney and Dallas locations as models for stores to come. The Tasti D-Lite following of Dallas must spread to McKinney.
"Both are fairly new to DFW and the Texas marketplace," Ritchey said. "It's picking up, but obviously we've got a lot of work to do to grow the Tasti side."
Though Ritchey calls both smoothies and soft-serve "healthy indulgences," he understands success depends as much on the salesman as the product. Treating people right, truly serving them, comes first - an approach that aligns with his background.
"It's certainly a different platform than the ministry, but when you reduce it down, there are some similarities in how you serve and treat people," he said. "Good business requires good people. Our whole enterprise system is based on a foundation of morals and ethics."
The McKinney Planet Smoothie/Tasti D-Lite store is at 2014 W. University Dr., Suite 340, in McKinney. For more information, visit the store's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/planetsmoothiemckinney.
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