The Untold Truth Of Carvel Ice Cream

On a hot summer day, Carvel is still the perfect place to stop in for a cold, delicious treat. If you grew up in the '90s, you might recall most childhood birthday parties offering up slices of their signature ice cream cakes – the shock of cool, smooth ice cream combined with the coarse texture of chocolate crunchies and the fluffy creaminess of sweet frosting immediately brings us back to memories of a simpler time. 

Even today, the Carvel ice cream chain remains a cultural staple with hundreds of locations across the country that are frequently visited — and not just in the summer. Started modestly in 1929 as an ice cream truck, the company has since grown into a cultural cornerstone with a long history full of surprising facts and a solid place in many American stomachs and hearts. After all, who could forget the company that gave us the iconic Fudgie The Whale and the Icy Wycy?

The business started as an ice cream truck

Carvel currently has more than 400 franchise locations across 24 states, but the original spot didn't have a fixed physical location, says Newsday. In fact, founder Tom Carvel was in the food truck business before it was trendy.

By the age of 26, Carvel had experimented with different career paths in the automobile industry until he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and, based on doctors' advice, had to move out of New York City to benefit his health, as noted in official documents logged by Smithsonian. His family gave him $1,000 for his transition, which he used to build his own frozen custard trailer. On Memorial Day weekend in 1934, his girlfriend and future wife Agnes Stewart lent him $20 dollars to purchase his first load of custard and Carver set out to get to Westchester County, New York in his trailer, attempting to gain the attention — and sales — of people vacationing in the town.

Unfortunately, the truck got a flat tire in Hartsdale, New York, and broke down across the street from a pottery shop owned by a man named Pop Quinlan who allowed Carvel to park the truck in his lot and use his electricity to keep the custard cool. Carvel decided to leave the truck there and ran his business out of the pottery shop's lot for a time, grossing $3,500 in the first year. This hugely successful but stationary ice cream truck prompted Carvel to change course and make the move towards a permanent physical location. In 1936, Carvel bought that same pottery shop and opened his brand's first fixed location (via Greek Herald).

Tom Carvel invented soft serve ice cream

The story goes that Tom Carvel invented soft service ice cream on the same fateful weekend as when his ice cream truck broke down in Hartsdale, New York. Unable to keep the frozen custard as cold as it needed to be, his stock naturally began to melt and soften. In an ingenious move, Carvel started calling the softened custard "soft serve" as an on-the-spot marketing spin in order to continue selling it. It was such a hit back then that he soon invented a soft serve ice cream recipe and the machine to churn it, launching it in 1939 and selling it to other manufacturers, according to Greek Herald.

Of course, there is a bit of controversy around who actually coined the term "soft serve" and who really invented the sweet treat. According to Forbes, the giant chain Dairy Queen also claims they were behind the creation first. 

Even so, the patent Carvel holds for the soft serve ice cream machine was just one of his many inventions. He also came up with the original ideas for everything from a low-temperature ice cream freezer (called the Custard King batch freezer) to the round ice cream sandwich, and he's also credited with pioneering the franchise business model and coining buy-one-get-one-free promotions (via Smithsonian and Mental Floss).

A missed opportunity with McDonald's

In 1956, an opportunity to develop a McDonald's franchising system was presented to Tom Carvel while he was at a dairy convention. McDonald's founder Ray Kroc was working out the original business model and asked Carvel if he wanted to be involved. Carvel didn't think hamburgers and ice cream went together and passed on being directly involved, but he did allow Kroc and McDonald's to use his franchising contract as a template for their own. Carvel did eventually try his hand at fast food franchising with the Hubie's Burger chain, though the business never achieved total success and was only in operation for a short time in the '50s (via Smithsonian).

Years later, Carvel remembered Kroc's proposal and claims to have taught McDonald's how to franchise. He went on to assert that every franchising contract in the world includes "at least one paragraph" from the original Carvel contract (via New York Times). Even though Carvel declined to be directly involved with McDonald's, it is clear that he greatly affected the way franchise businesses are operated to this day.

The iconic advertisements were voiced by Tom Carvel

Not only was he the CEO, but beginning in 1955, Tom Carvel also insisted on voicing the company's radio and television commercials himself, and the advertisements quickly became time-stamped treasures — even though, originally, Carvel claimed he decided to record the ads solely just to save money (via Mental Floss). 

The unexpected marketing move helped shape the public's view of the ice cream company. Carvel's unscripted and unedited voice connected with the audience in an unexpected way, and the advertisements were very successful. ”Some CEOs are duds in front of a camera while others, like Tom Carvel ... have a charisma that gives the company a distinctive advertising edge,” said F. Bradley Lynch, former vice president of ad agency N.W. Ayer, Inc., as noted by New York Times. Although the advertisements featured his voice, however, Carvel did not want to physically appear in commercials so he could maintain his privacy.

The Carvel Ice Cream fortune is disputed

The Carvel empire has sadly — and very dramatically — been fought over since Tom Carvel's death in 1990. The year prior, Carvel had sold the ice cream company to an investment firm for more than $80 million, leaving behind a $67 million estate to his widow Agnes and niece Pamela (via Mental Floss).

In fact, Carvel at one point suspected that his secretary Mildred Arcadipane and lawyer Robert Davis were plotting against him, and he planned to fire them. Unfortunately, he died before he got the chance. And sure enough, immediately after his passing, Arcadipane and Davis began legally fighting for part of the estate, even at one point allegedly breaking into Agnes' home to try and find Carvel's will. According to Forbes, several entities tried to get a piece of the fortune, and the disputes were alleged to have been caused by poor estate planning and unclear executors. At one point in 2007, niece Pamela even tried to have her uncle's body exhumed, claiming he was murdered by his former associates.

This was not the first time ownership and earnings were an issue for Carvel, either. In the '70s, the New York State Attorney sided with disgruntled franchisees by bringing an anti-trust suit against the ice cream company. The franchisees were unhappy with Carvel's strong control over every aspect of their operations and the limits he put on them. A settlement was eventually reached, according to New York Times.

Carvel holds Guinness World Records

Carvel Ice Cream has always been an innovator on the marketing front. Some of the company's latest ploys have resulted in two separate Guinness World Records, proving the brand's ability to be the biggest and the best in the ice cream business.

According to Ice Cream Reporter, The first record was set live on the CBS Early Show in 2002. In just 54 minutes, Carvel employees constructed the largest ice cream pyramid. Scoop by scoop, 278 gallons of ice cream were laid in 22 layers to create a 53-inch tall pyramid. What a sweet sight!

Carvel's second Guinness World Record was even more ambitious. According to Gothamist, Carvel made the largest ice cream cake ever for their 70th anniversary celebration in 2004. The giant cake was assembled in Union Square, New York by 54 people over 75 minutes and weighed 12,096 pounds. The delicious behemoth was 19 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 2 feet high. The cake pieces had to be made at -120 degrees and transported in refrigerated vans at -60 degrees in order to stay cold while the final product was assembled.

Clearly, Carvel is dedicated to getting the attention of its customers in a fun and engaging way. That's why it has survived for decades as one of America's favorite ice cream shops, satisfying our cravings for cold and sweet treats to this day.