Suhail Rifaie took an unexpected journey with his father’s ‘Sweetheart’ and has no regrets
It’s a profound foundation for Suhail Rifaie, family.
In almost every important matter in his life. Every goal he has ever set.
It’s why he wanted to attend medical school, it’s why he set milestone markers on his life’s journey, with when in his life it was time to have a wife and children, and why he’s now chief executive officer of Sweetheart Ice Cream.
The company, based in Tampa, may not be familiar to you but there’s no doubt you’ve purchased a product from his company if you’ve ever bought ice cream anywhere in the west coast of Florida.
Sweetheart Ice Cream is a distributor of major brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Breyer’s, Good Humor and Magnum, just to name a few, to retailers around the region. Think gas stations, convenience stores, independent grocery stores, theme parks, colleges, movie theaters, stadiums and more.
In 2011, when Rifaie stepped into the role of CEO, the company was a five-route company with revenue of $2 to $3 million. In 2021, it became a 30-plus route company with more than $20 million in revenue. In 2022, Rifaie projects revenue to exceed $22 million.
He wanted to be a pediatrician, to help kids, but now he’s the superstar dad at school, because he brings ice cream. A different flavor of comfort if you will.
We’re not past the first question, or the first answer, into Rifaie’s interview before he first utters the word, “Factcheck.” It’s quite hilarious and endearing how often he uses the phrase. If it wasn’t for his wife, Rana, much of this story could be considered hearsay.
This is what we know. Rifaie was born in the United States, in 1986, to a mother and father, both from Palestine. He has three siblings, all born with hearing impairments.
His father was the first of his family to move to the States in 1976, settling in the Chicago area, because he knew a relative lived there.
“My father had no shame. He was a busboy. He was a teacher’s aide,” Rifaie recalls. “They did what they needed to do to make it, living in Chicago.”
Eventually moving to Tampa, Rifaie grew up in the Carrollwood Springs area and lived in his parents’ home until he married in 2011.
“Dad and his friend decided, randomly, to come down here and take over a business that belonged to his friend’s uncle,” Rifaie says. “That’s how we ended up in Tampa. We have to ‘factcheck’ the date.” It was 1984.
Rifaie attended the University of South Florida, with the intention of becoming a pediatrician. It was there he met Rana who was born, and raised, in Dubai. She has a degree in information technology and now owns her own company, Orbal Cosmetics.
“I lived in [his parent’s] house until I was 25, that is when I got married. I grew up in north Tampa pretty much until we got married,” he says. “It’s cultural. Family is important in all cultures, but there’s an emphasis in our culture [Muslim] … it’s what kind of led me to where I am today.”
Today, he lives in northern Hillsborough County with his family, which includes two young daughters, Alena and Mira, and one cat which, he explains, only likes himself and one daughter.
“I had goals. I wanted to get married at 25. I wanted to have my first kid at 28, because I wanted to grow with my kids. Fortunate for me, Rana’s goals lined up with my goals,” Rifaie says of his wife.
A ‘SWEETHEART’ OF AN IDEA
Rifaie’s father established Sweetheart Ice Cream, as a “sort of” joke, in 1993, but it quickly turned into a lucrative business for the family.
“My dad and uncles have always been in the customer service, convenience store business. And the story goes along the lines of there was a vendor representative, at that time, that my father became good friends with. And they were just joking. And before you knew it, within that brief period, they were selling ice cream,” he says. “My father knew a lot of people and helped establish one route. Then they were just buying product from different vendors to supply the customers on that route.”
The company was named “Sweetheart” because it was his dad’s, well, sweetheart of a business.
“It became his baby at that time,” he adds.
Rifaie was studying medicine at USF. He had no intention of joining the family business until his father had some health issues in 2010. In 2011, a week after his wedding, Rifaie stepped in to help run the business in his father’s stead and has done so since.
“I wanted to become a doctor, and part of it was because of my siblings. I always had a soft heart for kids. I wanted to become a pediatrician, it’s what I wanted to do. And then life just took a whole different path and I just stepped up,” Rifaie says. “I saw opportunity at that time. It was a landscape of 18 competitors and we were a very small company, but it’s the hustle and the grind.”
In his new role, and with a new career path in place, there were some wins like buying out other distributors in the area, but also a major lesson.
“My first big mistake was when a customer swindled me. She had me sign a credit memo and I didn’t realize that she wasn’t going to be honest,” he recalls. “That’s a mistake you only make once, I promise you. I made it only once.”
It’s been more than 10 years since that day, but he can recount the frustration of being taken advantage of, sitting in his car berating himself for the failed transaction, like it was the day before.
“It was for a small credit. But she did me wrong. And I was like, ‘OK, no one is ever going to do me wrong again. You have to learn from it,” he says.
Today, Rifaie’s father is still involved with the company. They call him the “adviser,” he says laughing.
“His presence, with all of his experience, comes in handy,” Rifaie says. “Our philosophy is we don’t work titles. If you look on my card, I don’t have a title.”
Retaining what Rifaie refers to as the company’s “prestige” accounts, it is of the utmost importance to his business. He is less worried about who gets what title or how the job gets done.
“When people see you performing. They’re like, ‘Wait, maybe we should be on this truck? We should be with this vendor.’ And that is the ultimate goal,” he says.
GETTING OUT THERE
Rifaie admits he likes to fly under the radar, but with Sweetheart Ice Cream on solid footing, he’s ready to build a brand for himself and get more involved in the business community he’s long been a part of.
In 2021, a good friend, Felipe Ramirez, a senior vice president and senior relationship manager at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, finally convinced him to apply for Leadership Tampa Bay, a regional program that helps to connect professionals to each other and their community.
“It took Felipe three years to get me on board. I didn’t do it at the time because I wanted to be committed and I wanted to have the time to do it,” Rifaie says. He was accepted into the class of 2022 and graduated in June.
“This year was the year for me because I had a solid team around me,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to expand [my network] and make new friends. It was a great experience.”
Rifaie also likes to give back to the community in tangible ways. For example, he organizes a backpack drive (with his oldest daughter) every year and does a toy drive with Give Kids the World, based in Orlando. The last three drives went to Metropolitan Ministries.
His charitable efforts have not gone unnoticed by his eldest daughter, Alena.
“We were walking down by the Riverwalk and she saw a homeless person and she had the idea to do a care package/backpack for them,” Rifaie says. When the idea spread, her school got involved creating a chain of children helping to give out care packages to the homeless.
“We want to raise her, and her sister, with the mindset that giving back is important and you can start now, you don’t have to be an adult to do that,” he says. “Being humble is important.”
In three years, he collected 163 backpacks filled with 33 essential items for elementary kids.
“I came up with the name Treats for Joy. To make it more fun, instead of placing the toys in a regular cardboard box, I used a freezer to stuff the toys in. The analogy is that ice cream are treats that bring joy, so we replaced the ice cream with the toys. A toy drive is a toy drive, but it made the concept catchier when I would share it within my network,” he says. “The first Treats for Joy was back in 2014 and up to 2019, 1,400 brand new toys were collected. It was about the thought not the quantity but when people would see the concept and they would embrace it.”
Fact-check complete. ♦
Photos by Michael McCoy