Photos courtesy Carvel
Digging into the cold, hard facts about the company that invented soft-serve custard, franchises, and even the BOGO offer.
It was the hottest year on record—perfect for launching an ice cream company. But when the tire of Tom Carvel’s ice cream truck went flat in Hartsdale in the summer of 1934, the sun was no friend.
Carvel rushed to a nearby pottery shop to borrow electricity and save his stock. But passersby loved the melting custard, which he would later call “soft-serve.” The truck stayed in the lot for the rest of the season, and Carvel netted $3,500 that summer (more than $60,000 in today’s dollar).
It was the beginning of a confectionary empire. An inventor and marketing genius, Carvel had warm blue eyes and a trim mustache tucked under his nose, all of which hid boundless intensity and ambition. The Karvelas family left Greece for Connecticut shortly after the turn of the century and ultimately settled in New York City. Tom’s father, Andreas, put food on the table by restoring fermented wine for Greek restaurants during Prohibition.
A self-starter, Tom tried building chicken coops, playing in a Dixieland ensemble, and test-driving Studebakers. After a diagnosis of tuberculosis at 26 (which later proved a false diagnosis), Carvel needed a change and a move from the oppressive air of New York City. A few years later, he Americanized his name, borrowed $15 from his future wife, and turned an old white trailer into a glossy culinary attraction.
The novelty of homemade, half-melted ice cream from a stationary truck took off. Carvel opened America’s first retail ice cream company in 1936. He crafted a no-air pump for cream storage and patented Custard King freezers to sell by the dozens. When his freezer customers repeatedly bungled operations, Carvel decided they needed his guidance. The franchise, according to the “Custard King,” was born in 1947.
Carvel Corporation provided gourmet know-how to owners during a multi-week course at a converted Yonkers motel renamed the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge, often fondly referred to as “Sundae School.” One of the attendees even invented the Cookie Puss cake—an ice cream space alien made of ice cream, milk fudge, and shredded coconut—modeled after Tom Carvel’s own face.
In 1951, Carvel introduced the Flying Saucer, which coincided with the opening of the 100th retail shop—a feat made possible by Carvel’s marketing whit. Early in 1936, Carvel coined “buy one, get one free” and popularized the gift certificate. He was the first executive to moonlight in TV ads, fashioning a custom studio at Carvel College after hearing an uninspiring Carvel radio commercial. The ads were unmistakable, and helped the chain expand internationally in the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, the Flying Saucer, Fudgie the Whale, and Cookie Puss became ice cream cake staples. Carvel cameos appeared everywhere from episodes of The Simpsons and Billy Crystal standup acts to tracks by the Beastie Boys and Kelly Ripa’s baby shower. The National Museum of American History commemorated Carvel in its exhibit on advertising history.
More than 80 years later, Carvel, the company that holds the Guinness World Record for largest ice cream cake, continues to grow, with nearly 400 locations globally and sights on even more franchises in Westchester. This year, Nutella products are back on the menu and co-branding campaigns are kicking off with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon.
At the core, though, remain the myths and legends of Tom Carvel, the man who started it all. Stories range from Carvel teaching Lee Iacocca how to film commercials and topping Bob Hope on the greens to lending his franchise contract to McDonald’s. He is said to have ridiculed the owners of sports cars in the parking lot of the Yonkers headquarters, yet he generously footed thousands of dollars in medical bills for a loyal employee’s mother. He was also accused of intimidating franchisees, harassing workers, and violating Federal Trade Commission regulations (a case Carvel went on to win, receiving $10 million dollars from the franchisee groups for filing a “baseless suit”).
Like so many great American showmen, Carvel left a complicated legacy. Fact and fiction have slow-churned together over the decades. But, beneath the candy coating is a steadfast belief that a sweet future can only be shaped by those who believe in it.