Tom Carvel was the personification of the American dream. Once known as the “patriarch of the world’s biggest mom and pop ice cream parlor,” he was a man who wasn’t afraid of hard work and did what it took to make his “rags to riches” story come true. He had an engaging manner, twinkling blue eyes, neatly trimmed handlebar mustache and a friendly face. But he was a tough and honest businessman who demanded only the best from those who worked with him.
Athanassios Karvelas (1906-1990) was brought to the United States as a child from his native Greece. At the age of 26, after a variety of careers ranging 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. Borrowing $15 from his future wife Agnes, Tom began selling ice cream from his battered truck. Memorial Day weekend of 1934, Tom’s truck suffered a flat tire so he pulled his trailer into a parking lot next to a pottery store and began selling his melting ice cream to vacationers driving by. Within two days, Tom had sold his entire supply of ice cream, and realized that he could make a lot more money working from a fixed location. The generous potter allowed Tom to hook into his store’s electricity, and Tom opened for business. Two years later, Tom bought the pottery store, converted it into a roadside stand, and permanently established himself as the first retailer to develop and market soft ice cream.
With the coming of World War II, Carvel was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he served as a refrigeration consultant and concessionaire. This experience allowed Carvel 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 his expertise as well. For a flat fee and a percentage of the profits, Carvel began teaching independent store owners the ropes and allowed them to market ice cream under the Carvel name. In 1947, 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. Perhaps he is most 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 both the growth of the company as well as the brand’s loyal following. The ads attained him regional celebrity status and his golfing buddies included Bob Hope, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason. Even with his celebrity status, Tom Carvel remained down-to-earth, personable and ultimately became one of our country’s most beloved icons, representing the all-American dream with the most all-American of foods.