Ice Cream in the Summertime: The Story of Carvel Soft-Serve

Believe it or not, Memorial Day has already come and gone. So, what better way to celebrate The Retro Network’s Summer Camp 2022 than with a story about ice cream? After all, who doesn’t love ice cream on a hot summer evening? Or, you know… all year long?

Some of you may be reading this not knowing what Carvel is. A mostly East Coast brand, Carvel is heavily concentrated in the North Eastern United States. The company is the original soft serve ice cream brand in America and markets itself as “America’s Freshest Ice Cream.”

Carvel ice cream is one of our favorite treats in my house. Carvel will, at times, get dropped off via a food delivery service once the little one is in bed so my wife and I can enjoy a night of television or a movie. (Isn’t modern technology great?)

Growing up north of New York City, we had a Carvel in town. If I remember right, my Grandfather always preferred Carvel over the local Ma and Pa establishment everyone else preferred. He really liked the crushed bits of chocolate cookie called “crunchies” between the layers of ice cream. More than a few times, old Gramps famously wrote letters to Carvel complaining about the inconsistency of his beloved crunchies. He was rewarded for his efforts of taking the time to handwrite a letter with coupons for free cakes. Not a bad return on his efforts, if you ask me.

As we settle into the summer and increase our ice cream intake, I figured what better way to kick off the season than to look back at the history of the iconic ice cream franchise, Carvel!

Best known for soft-serve ice cream and ice cream cakes, Carvel currently operates a chain of over 400 ice cream parlors across 20 states and Puerto Rico. It also sells its ice cream cakes in over 8,500 supermarkets and wholesale clubs nationwide.

The story begins with an interesting character named Tom Carvel. Born Athanasios Karvelas in July of 1906, the Greek-born entrepreneur and his family emigrated to America in 1910 when he was only four years old. Arriving in Connecticut, his father earned money selling wine to Greek restaurants around the New York City area.

In his early 20s, Tom found himself bouncing between different jobs like a radio salesman or auto mechanic. By the age of 23, Athanasios decided he’d have better luck finding a good-paying job if he were to change his last name from Karvelas to the more American-sounding “Carvel.” He then began answering to his middle name, Thomas, and with that, “Tom Carvel” was born.

In 1929, Carvel borrowed $15 (about $255 today) from his future wife, Agnes, to purchase an ice cream truck. For five years, Tom was reasonably successful in his sales territory in and around Hartsdale, New York.

Then, one day, fate intervened.

During the Memorial Day Weekend of 1934, Tom’s truck tire went flat. Pulling into the parking lot of a nearby pottery store, his ice cream began melting in the late-May heat as the truck stood still. Tom grew worried he’d lose all of his profits and began flagging down and selling ice cream to drivers passing by. Tom got permission from the owner of the pottery store to use the building’s electricity to keep his truck’s refrigeration running. With the electricity, Carvel decided to set up shop in the parking lot for the remainder of the holiday weekend until he could get the tire replaced.

Word spread quickly about the partly-melted ice cream being sold at the pottery store, and people began seeking out Tom’s truck. Within two days, he had sold out of his entire ice cream supply and concluded his profits would increase by selling from a fixed location rather than driving through neighborhoods hoping for a sale.

He also realized there was a market for slightly-melted ice cream, creating what would become Carvel’s signature soft-serve ice cream.

Alongside his brother, Bruce, Tom began researching and building new ice cream machines that could refrigerate the ingredients quickly but with softer consistency than his competitors. The brothers then devised a device that not only kept the ice cream at the appropriate temperature but could pump out cone or cup-sized quantities of his soft-serve product. Tom would eventually patent his no-air pumping super-low temperature ice cream machine. He’d hold over 300 patents, trademarks, and copyrights of various ice cream-related products before his death in 1990.

The first Carvel in Hartsdale, New York

Two years later, he purchased that pottery store in Westchester, New York, and converted it into a roadside ice cream stand, permanently establishing Carvel as the first retail location of soft-serve ice cream. That first Carvel location lasted until 2006 when it was torn down and replaced by a Japanese-style restaurant.

In 1937, Tom married his wife Agnes, herself an immigrant born in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her family had moved to New York City when she was a little girl. Agnes attended business school and was known for having excellent business acumen, becoming very helpful in the ‘family business’ years down the road.

Tom was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as World War II approached. His knowledge of refrigeration systems had him assigned to the food service division, where he learned even more about food preparation, production, and storage.

After World War II, Carvel set out to grow his business. At first, his goal was to market his soft-serve machine for use in restaurants, but sales were slow. The restauranteurs also had trouble properly training staff to use the machines. Because of the difficulty, the restaurants began to stop paying their monthly lease fee to Carvel. Realizing this was a money loser, Carvel shifted his approach to maintain control over his product.

Tom had heard about a new way to grow businesses through the relatively new franchise system and decided this was the way for the Carvel company (then called Carvel Dari-Freeze) to grow. By the 1930s, many food service businesses like White Castle, Howard Johnson’s, A&W, and Kentucky Fried Chicken had expanded rapidly through the franchise system. Franchise agreements vary, but they generally involve the corporation selling entrepreneurs the recipes, supplies, logos, and promotional materials. The corporation received a percentage of profits or a regular flat fee in exchange.

In 1947, Tom Carvel successfully sold his first franchise and, within a year, had expanded to 25 locations. Being an immigrant himself, Tom welcomed and encouraged newcomers to the booming economy of a post-war United States to purchase franchises.

The early Carvel locations all borrowed a tactic of other franchises of the era: a signature building design. Much like Howard Johnson’s orange roof or McDonald’s golden arches, Carvel stores were designed with an inclined roof slanted upward toward the street. Designed to catch the customer’s attention, the plan was quite successful as the company reached over 500 locations by the end of the 1950s.

As the number of franchises expanded, the Carvel company opened the “Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge” to teach new franchisees how to own and operate their store. The College became affectionately known as “Sundae School.”

Inspired by the smashing success of Howard Johnson’s, Tom tried his hand at the hospitality business in the late 60s by purchasing the Westchester Town House Motel in Yonkers, New York. Renamed the Carvel Inn, the motel was converted into the corporate headquarters while still operating as a hotel. When franchisees purchased their new business, Tom had motel rooms available for them to stay in during their 18-day training course. The larger motel rooms were also used for meetings, classes, and a conference center for the annual franchise convention.

Tom made a habit of visiting his franchises and often found periods when foot traffic was light, and the employees had nothing to do but stand around. He decided there had to be a way to keep them occupied and make money, and this led him to the idea of having the staff make ice cream cakes.

Arguably the most financially successful product in company history, The Carvel Company found great success in selling specialized ice cream cakes in the shapes of various animals. Two of the most popular novelty cakes were “Fudgie the Whale” and “Cookie Puss.” Tom devised a pretty ingenious plan, where with a few minor adjustments and different decorations and toppings, employees could create multiple cakes using the same mold. Rotating the “Fudgie the Whale” mold upright could now represent a face, and the tail would represent whatever was needed, from the Easter Bunny’s ears or Santa Claus’ tasseled hat.

Every iteration of Fudgie the Whale carried a marketing staple of Tom Carvel: a cute name. “Hoot the Owl” appears around graduation time in June. “Dumpy the Pumpkin” and “Wicky the Witch” arrive just in time to haunt Halloween, while “Tom Turkey” gobbles up Thanksgiving dinner.

The popular Cookie Puss has an interesting backstory. The character was created by Carvel as a space alien born on planet Birthday. At first, named Celestial Person, the initials C.P. eventually came to stand for “Cookie Puss.” Cookie Puss is repurposed every year for St. Patrick’s Day as “Cookie O’Puss,” a leprechaun version of the beloved character.

In 1951, Tom Carvel developed another product innovation called the Flying Saucer. The first widely marketed round ice cream sandwich, the Flying Saucer was instantly popular as it was sold in single packs or packs of five or ten sandwiches.

Fudgie the Whale remains the best-known Carvel cake, but many forget it was initially designed to be a “Whale of a Dad” cake for Father’s Day. It turned out to be very popular and an iconic mascot for the growing company.

In 1955, when buying large quantities of advertising time on the radio, Tom grew annoyed when the radio announcers made mistakes reading his ad copy. The story from Carvel lore tells of a time Tom was driving around New York City and heard one of the new commercials not even mention the store’s location. Convinced that he could do better, he turned the car around and drove right to the radio station and did the next advertisement himself.

Tom believed that his distinct gravelly voice and charming personality were essential factors in his business’s success. He once joked, “I can’t find anyone cheaper than me.” Tom always recorded his commercials without a script and did not permit editing by sound engineers. The unrehearsed, folksy narration always ended with “Thank you.” The commercials were a hit with listeners as Tom became the first major CEO to appear in his own company’s commercials. America soon got to know the “kind, down to earth, grandfatherly” man behind Carvel ice cream.

When the company switched to television advertisements in 1971, the footage showed Tom, his products, and employees in the store. Tom demanded that minimal graphics or video effects be used in the ads. His “do-it-yourself” commercials became so popular that he inspired other CEOs to follow his lead.

Besides using himself as the company’s spokesman, Tom used various promotions starting with the company’s early days. In 1936, Tom would advertise a “Buy One, Get One Free” promotion. Tom was also an early adopter of corporate sponsorships of various tie-in promotions, including the New York Yankees and other New York area companies. The company’s most well-known and longest-running campaign is “Wednesday is Sundae at Carvel!”

In the 1970s, Carvel tried to capitalize on the growing fad of low-fat foods and began marketing “Lo-Yo” frozen yogurt and “Thinny-Thin” frozen deserts. Thinny-Thin went by the now-politically incorrect tag line “Thinny-Thin for Your Fattie-Fat Friends.” Times were different, eh?

By 1980, more than 700 franchises existed throughout the Eastern United States, and in 1989, Tom sold the company to Investcorp for over $80 million. Investcorp, which owned companies like Avon and Tiffany, moved the company headquarters from Westchester, New York, to Connecticut. Investcorp changed the company direction, allowing for the sale of Carvel products at supermarkets nationwide.

In 2001, Investcorp sold Carvel to Roark Capital Group. Roark owns Focus Brands, which runs companies like Schlotzky’s, Cinnabon, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne’s, and Jamba Juice.

Before his death, Tom Carvel had built the company to be the third-largest chain of ice cream stores, behind only Dairy Queen and Haagen Dazs. He and Agnes never had children and, in 1976, created a charitable foundation to fund causes benefiting children and families. While they were alive, Tom and Agnes steered the Carvel Foundation’s giving and preferred to leave smaller gifts to more places than placing large donations to few recipients.

The Carvels also did not want the Carvel name attached to whatever group they were funding. Tom and Agnes lived a middle-class lifestyle, despite their wealth. They maintained a modest home near Ardsley, New York but had a vacation home in Pine Plains, New York, and another in Florida. Tom drove a run-of-the-mill Chevrolet and spent his spare time golfing with friends Bob Hope, Perry Cuomo, and Jackie Gleason.

Tom Carvel died in his sleep in Pine Plains, New York, in 1990. He had spent the previous day worrying after rumors that two long-time employees, attorney Robert Davis and his assistant Mildred Aracadipane, were scheming behind his back. Tom and Agnes are buried in Hartsdale, New York, at the Ferncliff Cemetary, only a few miles from where he began his journey selling ice cream in 1929.

During Tom’s funeral, that same attorney, Robert Davis, hired a locksmith to break into the Carvel’s home to find the will. This caused numerous legal battles, speculation, and outlandish newspaper headlines. Harris and Aracadipane were forced to resign from the company in 1996 after being accused of taking money for personal use and engineering a stock sale for personal gain.

During Davis’ tenure as Chairman of the charitable foundation, he moved away from Tom Carvel’s edict of many donations in small amounts. He also directly contradicted the Carvel’s wishes to not have their name attached to anything, giving away naming rights for various facilities around the country to be named after the Carvels.

The story takes a strange twist nearly twenty years later, in 2009 when Tom’s niece Pamela Carvel filed court papers to have his body exhumed and have an autopsy performed. Pamela claimed she suspected that Tom was murdered, claiming he was drugged and suffocated by employees of Carvel hoping to steal his money. Her petition was denied, and she was laughed out of court. She later became a fugitive from justice during a personal bankruptcy trial. She had been vying for control of Tom’s 67-million-dollar estate.

Tom Carvel is one of America’s great success stories. An immigrant entrepreneur who was hardworking, energetic, stubborn, and independent. While his long-term legacy may be soft-serve ice cream, Carvel succeeded in changing America. The Smithsonian American History Museum even dedicated a special exhibit to Carvel’s history and memorabilia. The organizations that received donations or grants from the generosity of the Carvel Foundation, based on the life’s earnings of Tom and Agnes Carvel, will carry on his lasting desire that his good fortune should help less fortunate children.

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About Jeff Sheldon 35 Articles
Born in the 80's. Child of the 90's. I fly people places for a living and enjoy discussing the good old days of yester-year.

3 Comments

  1. We didn’t have Carvel here in the Midwest, so I have no personal connection. I never had even heard of it until I met people from the East Coast that grew up with it and had a similar fond connection to you. In addition to regular Ice Cream, we have Custard here that people that visit from other parts of the country always rave about.

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