Playing It Cool

Jeremy Litwack’s perseverance—and his knack for quirky flavor formulas—have made Jeremiah’s Italian Ice a sweet pursuit.

Surrounded by pastel tubs of Italian ice, mounds of fresh fruit, and crayon-colored jugs of flavored syrups, the workers who make Jeremiah’s Italian Ice are living the cool life. Tucked away in a Central Florida warehouse with a nondescript exterior that resembles nothing less than a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory funhouse on the inside,  they operate shiny silver machines that whir and whine while oozing fragrant frozen confections into plastic tubs. A sleek white van bearing the company’s green and orange logo leapfrogs around Orlando, delivering the frosty fun to customers who line up at Jeremiah stands for a taste. Across town, from the wrap-around balcony of his swank high-rise bachelor pad in The Sanctuary, Jeremy Litwack’s view of Orlando—and outlook on life—is equally sweet. At 43, the founder and CEO of Jeremiah’s Italian Ice pauses to reflect on how everything turned out as cool as his company’s slogan: Live Life to the Coolest.

Litwack started selling “water ice” when he was 18 and living in South Jersey, near where Philadelphia nudges the New Jersey and Delaware borders. “I was a street peddler in front of the Philadelphia Mint.” He worked for the man who supplied the ice while obtaining a degree in marketing from the University of Delaware, and then, with his supplier’s blessing, struck out on his own. “I got a warehouse where I just did research. I experimented with fruit purées and natural flavorings, sugar, filtered water—all different kinds of ingredients. I would go in to make the ice in the mornings, and then I’d load up the truck with my experimental batches and go around the neighborhood and sell it.”

In Philly, Litwack was just another face in a crowd of water ice vendors. He knew he needed to go elsewhere to create a market for his confection. “It was all I could think about, all day long,” he says. He had a friend who lived in Tampa, so in 1996, at age 26, Litwack said goodbye to his family and friends and headed south. After scouting Tampa and other Florida cities, Litwak settled on Orlando and opened his first Jeremiah’s Ice location on Aloma Avenue in the summer of 1996.

From that original 600-square-foot building—a former hamburger stand-turned-pizza joint in the middle of a shopping center parking lot—Litwack made the ice in the back and sold it up front. Today, Jeremiah’s Italian Ice has expanded to five stores and 90 employees and includes a facility where workers make the ice and help Litwack concoct flavor ideas. Two more Orlando-area stores are planned.

It wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. “People down here didn’t know what water ice was. My competitors were ice cream shops. It was just me and two other employees. I worked 16 hours a day, not one day off, for seven months. It was fun for me. Then I decided to take Mondays off.” He grins. “It took about three years for it to catch on.”

But catch on, it did. Besides the classic Italian ice, Jeremiah’s also offers gelati—a layered combination of the ice and soft-serve ice cream. One loyal customer, Carissa Mui, claims to have eaten the treat at Jeremiah’s original location after every Kung Fu class she’s attended since the store opened. “Even in the winter, in 30-degree weather, I sit outside and shiver and eat my gelati,” she says. “They just get the flavors right.” Eric and Lisette Barteau even had their engagement pictures taken at Jeremiah’s because they spent so much time there while dating. “We’ve had people propose at Jeremiah’s, because it was the scene of their first date,” says Litwack. “We had a couple come for ice right after their wedding, still in their wedding clothes, because it was a part of their lives growing up. I love stories like that.”

The staff that waits on customers is largely made up of fresh-faced high school or college girls who wear tank tops emblazoned with the company’s green frog logo over shorts or jeans. But Litwack insists he’s selling dessert, not sex appeal. “We look for sweet, genuine girls or guys. They have to have a genuine personality, and a sweet demeanor.” Then he laughs. “But the guys usually work in the back.”

Litwack still plays the mad scientist, experimenting with new flavors. “From Slice to Ice” is a new pumpkin pie-flavored fall favorite, which he suggests eating in a gelati combo. Another featured ice flavor is “Sweet Child of Lime,” which is rolled out once a year and tied to a fundraiser for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. The new Salted Caramel recently debuted alongside Snoop Froggy Frog, a mint-chocolate chip perennial customer favorite. Not all of the flavors Litwack concocts have succeeded, however: Black Licorice was a slow seller, for example, and the “Pickle Juice” flavor he adored never made it past the puckered faces of his taste-testers.

Litwack’s pursuits away from the ice include running, as well as playing poker, hockey and guitar. He hopes to settle down and raise a family someday and maybe travel to Europe. But first, he has a few more business goals to accomplish: “I’d like Jeremiah’s to become a national chain, with stores and offices in other cities.”

Telling the story of Jeremiah’s Italian Ice is something he is being asked to do more and more. A couple of years ago, Dr. Jill Norburn, director of student affairs at UCF’s Burnett Honors College, invited Litwack to tell her business students about “what you do, how you got to where you are today, what you like/dislike about it, and what students can be doing now if they want to do what you do.” Harking back to living life to the coolest, Norburn asserted, “You are living these students’ dreams.”

Litwack says if he could go back in time and speak to his younger self at that first store, he’d tell him to lighten up—but only a little. “I love what I do. But I’d tell someone younger that the recipe for success is 80 percent business and 20 percent other things.” Most important, he says, is perseverance.

“Do something you love. Passion will carry you through to success if you stick with it.”  

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