When Greek immigrant Thomas Carvel started the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge in the late 1940s, his intention was to educate his ice cream shop franchisees in the proper handling and distribution of the soft serve cones he had invented back in 1934. Famously strict about his scooping protocol, Carvel would grow upset if he discovered a store owner dished out only three ounces of vanilla to save money, not his required 3.5 ounces. Customers—especially kids—could tell the difference.
"Once a kid realizes he isn't getting his full cone, you've lost a customer," Carvel told The New York Times in 1985. "And that's the way you lose an entire chain."
Carvel’s rigid standards sometimes stirred up dissent, as in the case of the antitrust lawsuit filed in 1979 by franchisees over his insistence they buy Carvel-supplied napkins and other goods at inflated prices. But it was his ingenuity that led the 865-location Carvel chain to a stunning $300 million in sales by 1985.
That growth was spurred in large part by the company’s distinctive ice cream cakes, including Hug Me the Bear and Fudgie the Whale. But no confection drew as much attention as Cookie Puss, the cone-nosed birthday treat made famous in a series of 1970s commercials, a 1983 Beastie Boys song, and a legendary bit on The Howard Stern Show.
Although stores frequently tweaked the Cookie Puss design, it never strayed far from its original inspiration: the face of Carvel himself.
Carvel’s ice cream empire began with a flat tire. In 1934, he had borrowed $15 from his fiancée, Agnes, to get an ice cream truck on the road in Hartsdale, New York. The truck broke down, but customers didn’t seem to mind the softening ice cream—in fact, they seemed to love it.
Carvel jumped on the opportunity, cobbling a soft-serve machine together in his garage and obtaining a patent for it. When he realized that selling the machines led to frequent user error, he founded the Carvel Corporation in 1947, lining states—and his pockets—with Carvel-branded frozen treat storefronts.
Carvel recognized that it would take more than his name to help distinguish the stores from other ice cream shops. Their ice cream sandwiches were dubbed Flying Saucers in 1951; Carvel invited franchisees to brainstorm other unique product ideas.
In the early 1970s, an attendee at the College of Ice Cream Knowledge presented Carvel with a cake in a vaguely humanoid shape. With a cone to mimic Carvel’s bulbous nose, Carvel was impressed. He also realized anthropomorphized cakes would be a clever way to further the Carvel brand. An entire line—including Fudgie the Whale and Hug Me the Bear—were rolled out, 50-something ounces of frozen cake goodness that shops could decorate for personalized birthday greetings.
To spread the word, Carvel began featuring Cookie Puss in regional television advertisements throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Airing Saturday mornings and late at night, the ads were low-budget—Carvel refused to hire an ad agency—and featured Carvel himself as the narrator, his gravelly voice urging viewers to consider Fudgie for Father’s Day, Cookie Puss for all occasions, Cookie O’Puss for St. Patrick’s Day, Dumpy the Pumpkin for Halloween, and Cookie’s female counterpart, Cupie Puss, for whatever else might require massive sugar consumption.
Carvel even issued stuffed toys of Cookie Puss and Fudgie in 1985, hoping the $5.98 dolls would become Carvel’s version of Ronald McDonald, a food mascot that transcended corporate direction.
Even people who had never tried Cookie Puss were still aware of him thanks to the pervasive ads. The Beastie Boys broke through with "Cooky Puss," their 1983 single that was built around a real prank phone call made by Adam Horovitz to a Carvel store asking to speak to Cookie Puss. (One unconfirmed urban legend says Carvel was so annoyed by the album that he was considering legal action before his nephew, a Beasties fan, talked him down.)
In 1991, The Howard Stern Show dragged Cookie Puss back into the spotlight when Stern spent an inordinate length of time berating staffer Fred Norris for giving his mother a Cookie Puss for Mother’s Day. Using audio effects, Stern raised his pitch to resemble Cookie’s distinctive voice:
Stern: Hey, Fred. How come you didn’t get your mom a Fudgie the Whale? Because Cookie Puss is number one, right? ... I think you really didn’t think about your mother.
Norris: Thank you for judging me, Cookie Puss.
Stern: Tom Carvel was a weird guy. I wish he could have named me Rambo. Rambo the Cake.
Puss’s heyday came to an end in 1993, when Carvel’s new owners (Tom Carvel had sold the business in 1989 to investment bankers for $80 million) hired an actual ad agency to create a polished campaign. Carvel himself died in 1990, and was later the subject of a bizarre claim by his niece that he had been murdered so his aides could lay claim to the Cookie Puss fortune. The allegation was later dropped.
Today Puss, Fudgie, and the others can still be found at the 400-odd Carvel locations; the company’s slightly retroactive history currently claims that Cookie Puss is actually an alien from the Planet Birthday.
But whatever its fictional narrative might be, Cookie Puss still bears a strong resemblance to Tom Carvel. The inspiration for Dumpy the Pumpkin, however, remains unknown.