Tom Carvel, born Athanasios Thomas Karvelas, was a Greek-born American entrepreneur and philanthropist, best known as the founder of the Carvel Corporation. Born on July 14, 1906, in Greece, he moved to the United States in 1910.
The Karvelas family immigrated to the U S in the early twentieth century to escape the poverty in Greece for the land of opportunity. Young Thanassis Karvelas was only four years old when the family left Athens and arrived in Connecticut.
By the age of 23, Thanassis had changed his name to the more American-sounding “Tom Carvel.”
Tom invented soft serve ice cream in the U S and from this, created Carvel Ice Cream, which is one of the best known brands in the U.S., with over five hundred stores here and abroad.
Tom Carvel was a household name for decades, and his voice was listened to by millions through his many radio and T V commercials.
But how did it all start? After attempting various jobs, he decided to become an ice cream vendor. He borrowed fifteen dollars from his then girlfriend and future wife and took to the streets of Hartsdale, New York with his truck, selling ice cream from one of its windows.
Memorial Day 1934 was a hot day, and Carvel’s truck got a flat tire and had to pull into a parking lot next to a pottery store. All the while, his ice cream started to melt.
Tom ran into the pottery shop and asked if he could sell his ice cream out front before it all melted. The pottery store owner agreed, and Tom went to work. It turned out his almost-melted, “soft” ice cream, was a hit, and the entrepreneur had sold every bit of ice cream he had.
He was quickly inspired to sell ice cream from a fixed location, and to make it soft ice cream. Within two years, Carvel opened his first store, a roadside ice cream shop.
By then, he had created the formula to make what became known as soft-serve ice cream. His store was the very first anywhere that sold soft ice cream.
Unlike the traditional ice cream of the time, “soft ice cream” was made by a secret formula based on a pastry cream invented by Carvel. The mixture was kept in the machine at a very low temperature, but without freezing it, like the traditional cone or boxed ice cream.
During that same year of 1936, Carvel presented his patented machine which made fresh, soft ice cream and established the Carvel Corporation.
The idea was very successful from the get-go, and, over the next eleven years, Carvel sold his “Miracle Machines” to countless ice cream stores across the United States.
However, many shopkeepers found it difficult to handle his machines properly, so the ice cream mogul came upon the solution of visiting his clients in person and advising them on how their machines should work.
In 1947, Carvel came up with the idea to have his own name on ice cream stores across the nation. After all, many of them were already using his own, patented machines.
His idea of creating soft ice cream outlets under his own name, as well as his advice to shopkeepers, can be compared to the type of commercial entity we nowadays know as a franchise. His first franchise opened that year, and by 1951, there were a hundred Carvel Ice Cream stores across America.
Another novelty which made Greek-American entrepreneur Carvel famous was that he was one of the first company executives to be the central person in the advertising of his products.
Ads with his distinctive voice were broadcast on the radio and then continued on television. The man with a white mustache became a well-known figure in most American homes.
Carvel’s company then began making ice cream cakes in novelty shapes. The Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes, as well as his festive Santa Claus cakes, became huge hits, even inspiring the Beastie Boys song Cookie Puss.
Tom Carvel passed away in 1990 at the age of eighty-four, leaving behind a hugely-successful company with five hundred stores—and an amazing legacy. Carvel Ice Cream is just another of the many tales of success in the history of Greek-Americans.