As a businesswoman, entrepreneur, and a detective on the Newark Police force, Janell Robinson models what it’s like to be dressed in her police uniform by day only to follow in her business casual attire as she tirelessly serves as a product of her rugged hometown, Newark, N.J.
Robinson, 37, runs her Italian Ice franchise, Rita’s in downtown Newark, while solving crimes in the city. She manages to do this with the help of her dedicated parents and employees.
“A true ambitious woman sets out to do what I did by any means necessary, said Robinson.
Robinson was born and raised in the city of Newark, N.J. where she attended school, joined local groups, and opened two different businesses. At a very young age, Robinson always aspired to give to her community and to be a contribution to what she calls a “great city.”
As of 2012, Newark is a city of about 277,727 people with a median income of $35,636. Newark N.J. is experiencing a renaissance of sorts with businesses setting up in the downtown area. While crime is substantially lower since former Mayor Cory Booker worked to transform the city, it is still a challenge for Robinson who helps to solve major crimes as a detective in the Newark Police force.
For Robinson, growing up in Newark was a lot different 37 years ago than it is today. Her memories about growing up in the city include major department stores in the city’s downtown area, penny candy, and plenty of mom and pop stores like her grandmothers restaurant which used to be on a main street in the city.
Robinson credits her parents and mentors in molding her into the woman that she is today. “At the age of 37, I can honestly say that I am comfortable in the life that I live, Robinson said, beaming a smile as she recalls her accomplishments.
Her fond memories of high school included joining the police academy to become a Newark cop. Now these memories are her reality as she still serves her city and has now become a part of the rebuilding of what’s to come for businesses in Newark.
In 2002, Robinson opened up her first business in Newark, named South Jelly’s Dominican Doobies a Dominican hair salon with about 10 employees. This salon lasted about 5 years, until a potential buyer came along and offered to buy the location and she decided to sell the salon. Her success there was good with the wash and set, popular in the Dominican culture known as a “Doobie,” hence the name of her salon. The salon was located on Bergen Street and mostly was a family business with help of her parents and cousins.
In 2004, Robinson sought to open up a franchise, Rita’s Italian Ice, in her hometown. Rita’s Italian Ice is a franchise located and originated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Specializing in Italian Ice, Custard, and a host of other treats they are exactly what you’re looking for on a hot summer day. Their many locations are owned by separate franchisees who many own more than one location at a time. The company has several locations that are mostly on the east coast of the United States.
Robinson’s idea was to bring an ice cream place people love local and to hire students and positive people seeking employment which nowadays in Newark seems hard to find.
Ultimately, this was Robinson’s first Rita’s which lasted until 2009, after the economic downturn hit the city hard she decided to close down and find a place to relocate.
Robinson opened up her new location in May of 2013 on the four busy corners of Broad and Market streets in downtown Newark. After searching for the perfect location, she decided that this would be the ideal spot located just across the street from the Prudential Arena and about three blocks from Newark Penn Station, the dominant location for daily commuters taking the bus and trains to and from work or school. Rita’s is among the latest businesses that recently opened downtown Newark amongst businesses such as Joe’s Crab shack restaurant, and Marriott Hotel.
Rita’s started off with a staff of about 15 employees ranging from high school students to adults in their late 20’s.
“I seek to provide part time positions for same area teenagers, some I have counseled in the police department and others who are willing to work hard for a buck,” said Robinson.
After about five months of being open, Rita’s main focus was to get everyone inside and familiar with their new location. Rita’s began to focus on the mainstream ways using social media, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to reach customers.
Robinson borrowed money from New Jersey Community Capitol, a community development financial institution which helps small businesses. In collaboration with Brick City Development Corporation, Robinson was granted $170,000 to start the construction for Rita’s.
By the fall Rita’s is now closed down, but not the physical store, Robinson has switched over her focus for the fall and winter months to serving Hale & Hearty soups, Philly Pretzel Factory Pretzels, and Grilled Cheese sandwiches.
Robinson saw the switch as a perfect opportunity to keep her doors open and to keep her customers happy. Rita’s franchise granted Robinson the green light to stay open all year around, but she feared that in the colder months business would become slow. So Robinson transformed Rita’s and started “The Newark Soup House”. Robinson partnered up with Hale & Hearty, a company based in New York City that serves hearty soup, salads, and sandwiches in order to serve their products at her store.
Now that Robinson is in winter mode and down to about three staff members, she focuses on the demands and needs of her customers. After transitioning from Rita’s to The Newark Soup House, the first few weeks of this new adventure has been making up for what Robinson thought would close her doors for Rita’s until the spring.
“You have to keep the revenue coming in some way, somehow,” said Robinson. “The rent still has to be paid.”
A normal day for Robinson consist of a traditional nine to five as an officer then she usually makes it to the store to handle the important paperwork and other responsibilities of a business owner.
“I can’t be at the store every day, but the days that I am there I jump right in.” said Robinson. When asked if she interacts with customers, Robinson said “It’s a lot sometimes because people want to get personal with you, but I have built some sort of relationship with some of the daily faces.”
Robinson has used her struggles and adversities to build a business. Her perseverance and resilience never wavered even after she struggled to move her business elsewhere and make her dreams a reality.
Robinson says that Rita’s will open again in the spring, but for now her focus is on whether her idea on the soup store will work out for the future cold seasons.
“It’s unusual for Rita’s. We have to educate customers.” she said. “But we are here. We are open.”