Tom Carvel was the personification of the American dream. He built his namesake national chain of ice cream shops — America’s first retail ice cream franchise — from the back of his broken-down truck.
On October 21, 1990, this businessman passed away at age 84. But even though he is long gone, his legacy lives on for millions of adoring American ice cream lovers.
Once known as the “patriarch of the world’s biggest mom and pop ice cream parlor,” Carvel wasn’t afraid of hard work and did what it took to make his “rags to riches” story come true.
Those who knew him spoke of his engaging manner, twinkling blue eyes, neatly trimmed handlebar mustache and friendly face. But he was also a tough and honest businessman who demanded only the best from those who worked with him.
Born Athanassios Karvelas (1906-1990) in Athens, Greece, he moved the United States with his parents in 1910.
At the age of 26, after a variety of careers that ranged from a drummer in a Dixieland band to an auto test driver for Studebakers, Carvel was incorrectly diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis and fled to the country air of Westchester, New York.
After borrowing $15 from his future wife Agnes Stewart, Carvel began selling ice cream from the back of his battered truck.
Some bad luck on Memorial Day weekend in 1934 turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Carvel. When his truck suffered a flat tire, he pulled his trailer into a parking lot next to a pottery store and began selling his melting ice cream to vacationers driving by.
Carvel sold his entire supply of ice cream in just two days. This is when he realized he could make a lot more money working from a fixed location.
The potter allowed Carvel to hook into his store’s electricity. Two years later, in 1936, Carvel bought the pottery store, converted it into a roadside stand, and permanently established himself as the nation’s first retailer of soft ice cream.
That same year, he patented a “no air pump” super-low temperature ice cream machine, developed a secret soft serve ice cream formula and introduced the marketing concept “Buy one get one free.”
In 1939, Carvel built the first soft serve ice cream machine.
With the coming of World War II, Carvel received orders to go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a refrigeration consultant and concessionaire. This experience allowed him to improve his ice cream freezer and team it with a specially formulated liquid ice cream made with the freshest ingredients to create the high quality product we know today.
As Carvel began selling his patented machinery to other stores, he quickly realized that he could sell not only his machinery, but also his expertise.
For a flat fee and a percentage of the profits, Carvel began teaching independent storeowners the ropes and allowed them to market ice cream under the Carvel name. His Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge was also known affectionately as Sundae School.
Carvel cultivated this relatively unknown idea called “franchising,” and opened 25 stores by the early 1950’s. Often referred to as the “father of franchising,” many of Carvel’s marketing concepts have been emulated not only in franchising, but in almost every industry.
His franchise contract was the first to survive the Federal Trade Commission and the United States Supreme Court.
In 1955, he set up the country’s first line of ice cream vending vehicles.
Carvel is also famous for his voice as heard in many unrehearsed television and radio spots. Advertising historians agree this voice — once described as a cross between the marble-mouthed gravel of Marlon Brando’s character in “The Godfather” and the lovable, cowardly lion in the “Wizard of Oz” — was key to his company’s growth.
The ads attained him regional celebrity status. His golfing buddies, for instance, included Bob Hope, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason.
Despite his overnight celebrity status, Carvel remained down-to-earth, personable and ultimately became one of the country’s most beloved icons — representing the all-American dream with the most all-American of foods.
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