Despite the snow flurries, ice pellets, and freezing conditions, Sidney Davis stopped by Rita's Italian Ice at 21st and South Streets on Tuesday afternoon to pick up a free cup of water ice. Bundled up in a scarf, parka, and boots, Davis wandered over to the windows to watch the snowflakes as she dug into her frozen treat.

"I've been coming to get Rita's on the first day of spring since I was 10, so for the past 11 years or so," Davis said. "It started as a family thing, so I had to come today despite the awful weather. Free is free, after all."

As Philadelphia braced for its fourth winter storm this month, Rita's locations around the city opened dutifully for a beloved tradition — free water ice on the first day of spring — despite the absence of sunshine and warmth. Lines usually stretch out the door when the weather cooperates. Last year, the chain gave out nearly a million cups of water ice, according to its website.

That likely will not be the case this year.

"Last year, there was a teacher who brought her entire class," Mike Chow, one of the owners of Rita's at 21st and South, said. "We had 30 kids lined up outside before we even opened, and we wound up taking their orders in bulk."

Rita’s at 21st and South had a slow day due to the weather, despite offering free water ice in honor of the first day of spring.
Bethany Ao
Rita’s at 21st and South had a slow day due to the weather, despite offering free water ice in honor of the first day of spring.

Not so much this year.

During the first hour, only about 20 customers braved the chill for free water ice. One even left the store double-fisting her water ice and a huge cup of steaming coffee. An incredulous employee watched her leave.

"Who are these people?" she asked. "Even I wouldn't get water ice today."

Kelly Piasecki stopped by with her sons, Miles, 4, and Owen, 2, after a run and an outing to the playground. The cold didn't stop the boys from devouring the treats, although Owen was sorely disappointed that the mango flavor wasn't more yellow.

The regulars were pleasantly surprised by the lack of lines. They asked Chow how many customers had been around, curious about who else was braving the weather.

"We try to come if we're nearby on the first day of spring," Scott Parsons, a paramedic who was among the store's first customers of the day, said. "If there's a line, we'll usually skip it. But there's no line today, so this is great."

Chow said he had no idea what to expect Tuesday. "We're probably not going to open tomorrow," he said as he watched the snow fall outside. (The shop at 15th and Spruce Streets was a little busier, but business slowed as ice began to collect on the sidewalks.)

For some, getting water ice was an act of devotion. John Freeman stopped by for a cup of wild cherry for his wife, brushing snow from his gloves and beanie. Asked whether he wanted anything for himself, he shook his head adamantly.

"Eating water ice when it's this cold outside just doesn't seem right to me," he said, gesturing to the snow outside. "I'll be back when it's warmer."