There’s a lot to know from the 81-year history of America’s first ice cream franchise.
1. THOMAS CARVEL STARTED HIS ICE CREAM EMPIRE WITH A LOAN FROM HIS FUTURE WIFE.
In 1910, Tom Carvel was just 4 years old when he moved to America along with the rest of his family from Greece. As a young man, Carvel tried his hand at a number of odd jobs, including test-driving Studebaker cars. But after he was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, doctors recommended that Carvel get out of the automotive business and out of New York City. He moved to Westchester, borrowed $15 from his soon-to-be-wife, Agnes, and in 1934, a 26-year-old Carvel started selling ice cream out of a truck.
2. SOFT-SERVE WAS INVENTED WHEN A TRUCK BROKE DOWN.
Carvel’s business almost went bust that first year. On Memorial Day weekend, in Hartsdale, Carvel's truck broke down and the ice cream started to melt. Carvel hurried to sell what he could and quickly found that heat-softened ice cream was a hit. He called the product “soft-serve” and sold it all summer right out of the broken down truck in a pottery store parking lot. It turned out that customers loved the stationary stand and the slightly softened ice cream; Carvel earned $3500 (more than $60,000 in today’s money).
3. CARVEL’S SOFT-SERVE MACHINE WAS THE FIRST OF MANY PATENTS.
Following that fortuitous breakdown in 1934 (for what it’s worth: Dairy Queen disputes the origin story of soft-serve), Carvel put his mechanical experience to use to build a machine that churned soft-serve—it was the first of more than 300 patents, copyrights, and trademarks that Carvel would acquire during his long career. His original intent was just to sell the machines to other ice cream shops, but when they proved too tricky to operate without Carvel’s guidance, he had no choice but to start hiring people himself and launch the Carvel Corporation in 1947, making him the self-proclaimed "father of franchising" in America.
4. CARVEL WAS AN INNOVATOR MANY TIMES OVER.
In addition to soft-serve, among the many firsts Tom Carvel was responsible for were round ice cream sandwiches, and he was one of the first to offer “buy one get one free” promotions.
5. AT LEAST ONE OF THE SIGNATURE CAKES BECAME A CULTURAL ICON.
In the '70s, Carvel debuted a line of slight bizarre-looking cakes that included Fudgie the Whale, Hug-Me Bear, and Cookie Puss. Although Fudgie the Whale—advertised as a Father’s Day treat—is still the best seller today and they all became part of the cultural lexicon, Cookie Puss had particularly wide-ranging impact. The Carvel-endorsed origin story claimed that the Cookie Puss was an alien who originally went by the name Celestial Person (or “CP”) but that’s likely got nothing to do with why the cake was a popular reference on The Howard Stern Show or its titular role in the Beastie Boys’ debut single.
6. TOM CARVEL’S UNREHEARSED ADS HELPED PUT THE COMPANY ON THE MAP.
Advertising experts cite Tom Carvel as one of the first executives to voice his own ads on radio and television. "I can't find anyone cheaper than me," Carvel is reported to have said of casting himself. His gravelly voice and imperfect diction was instantly notable and memorable. A 1979 New York Times story put him "on the enemies list of every elocution teacher who ever watched him transform a television commercial to a 60-second comedy of syntactical errors." But the unscripted, unedited spots charmed the public.
"The professionals ridicule my commercials, but who cares?" Carvel told the Times in 1985. "You can have a six-foot-tall, handsome announcer with a perfect voice, perfect diction, perfect grammar. But very few ice-cream buyers look like that. Our commercials are for the people who look like us, talk like us and sound like us."
7. FOLLOWING THOMAS CARVEL’S DEATH, THE COMPANY FORTUNE WAS MIRED IN MYSTERY AND CONTROVERSY.
Just days before he died in 1990, 84-year-old Thomas Carvel told a close associate that he had begun to worry that Mildred Arcadipane, his secretary and confidant of 38 years, and Robert Davis, his longtime lawyer, were scheming against him. Despite their years of service, Carvel planned to relieve them of their considerable power within the company. He died of a heart attack before he had the chance to do so. In the decades since his death, Carvel’s fears have been proven well-founded. Arcadipane and Davis fought bitterly for years against Carvel’s widow Agnes and his niece Pamela over the $67 million estate—and the fighting wasn’t always fair. While Agnes attended her late husband’s wake, Davis and a hired locksmith broke into the couple’s home to search for a will, and in 2007, Pamela—the sole surviving member of the feud—requested that her uncle’s body be exhumed for an additional autopsy in an effort to prove he’d been murdered. That request was denied, and later an arrest warrant was issued for Pamela Carvel—who had filed for bankruptcy—for civil contempt.
8. THE ORIGINAL CARVEL LOCATION LASTED OVER 70 YEARS.
Two years after that fateful breakdown in Hartsdale, N.Y., Thomas Carvel bought a permanent ice cream shop on the very same street. The store, 25 miles north of Manhattan, served up sweet treats for over seven decades. It was also the site of the first ice cream supermarket in 1956. But rising rents and taxes took a toll and in October 2008, the original Carvel closed for good.
9. ASPIRING FRANCHISEES LEARN THE ROPES DURING AN INTENSIVE COURSE AT CARVEL COLLEGE.
Thomas Carvel was a notoriously strict CEO during his lifetime (so much so that he faced legal action from franchisees who accused him of violating Federal Trade Commission regulations—Carvel ultimately won the case at the Supreme Court level). To keep standards high and consistent, aspiring franchisees attended a 14-day training program (now just 10 days) at the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge (or, Sundae School), where Mr. Carvel himself gave the commencement speech. The school launched in 1949, and Carvel later purchased a motel in Yonkers, N.Y. to serve as the Carvel Inn, training school, and production studio for their in-house commercials.
10. THE COMPANY HAS A COUPLE WORLD RECORDS.
In 2002, the then-68-year-old company set the Guinness World Record for the largest ice cream pyramid, live on the CBS Early Show. Over the course of 58 minutes, 28 Carvel employees stacked 3894 scoops of Carvel's creamy vanilla ice cream 53 inches high in 22 layers. The final pyramid weighed in at 1005 pounds and 778,800 calories.
Two years later, the company celebrated its 70th anniversary with a record-setting world’s largest ice cream cake. The 2096-pound, 19x9-foot cake took 75 minutes and 54 people to assemble.
11. THERE WAS A VERY SHORT-LIVED CARVEL HAMBURGER FRANCHISE.
Hubie’s, or H-burger, was trademarked by Carvel in 1960 but the home of the 15-cent hamburger—which also featured whole barbeque chicken—failed to take off. It seems Tom Carvel’s passion was never really burgers—he had previously turned down the chance to get involved with McDonald’s when it was just starting out, stating that he felt ice cream and burgers don’t really go together.
12. YOU CAN MAKE THE "CRUNCHIES" AT HOME.
A big part of what makes Carvel ice cream cakes so reliably delicious is that crumbly cookie layer between the two flavors. Dedicated fans around the Internet (with a little help from Food Network Magazine) found out that the company uses crumbled flying saucer cookies (from their ice cream sandwiches) mixed with their in-house chocolate dip that hardens. But you can make a pretty good duplicate at home using chocolate Nabisco wafers or Oreo crumbs mixed with Smucker's Magic Shell.