Tom Carvel, The Greek Inventor of Soft Ice Cream in America

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Everyone love’s ice cream and some of us (in North America) grew up with soft ice cream from an ice cream truck in our neighbourhood. Something most do not know is that America’s soft ice cream was invented by Tom Carvel (Karvelas), a Greek immigrant that came to the United States from Greece..

Carvel Ice Cream is one of the most well-known brands in the United States, with over 500 locations and a strong online presence. Tom Carvel, the company’s founder, was a household name for decades. Like so many great stories, it all began by accident in 1934 due to a flat tire.

In the early 20th century, the Karvelas family made a decision to flee impoverished Greece, like hundreds of thousands other, for the promised land of opportunity in America. Thanassis Karvelas was just four years old when he and his parents left Athens and arrived in Connecticut.

Some years later, Tom’s father, Andreas, was selling wine in Greek restaurants during the years of the Prohibition.

Thanassis, at age 23, was a driven individual that had tried and left several jobs. He changed his name to the more American-sounding “Tom Carvel” like many other Greeks that arrived to America, It was at that moment he decided to become an ice cream vendor. He borrowed a mere $15 from his future wife and took to the streets of Hartsdale, New York with his truck, selling ice cream from one of its windows.

Carvel’s truck got a flat tire on Memorial Day, in 1934, one of the hottest days of that summer. He had to pull into a parking lot next to a pottery shop. Meanwhile, his ice cream was melting.

Tom sprinted into the pottery shop, asking if he could use their electricity to save his merchandise and if he could also sell his ice cream on the spot. The owner of the pottery store agreed, and the Greek-American entrepreneur began selling his melted ice cream to passers-by.

Passers-by seemed to really like his almost-melted, “sweet” ice cream, and within 2 days, the Greek merchant had sold out of all of the ice cream in his truck. It immediately occurred to him that selling his ice cream from a fixed place was actually simpler. His second discovery was that people favoured soft ice cream.

Carvel bought the pottery store 2 years later where he had experienced his revelation and turned it to a roadside ice cream shop. Tom by then had created the formula to make what became known as soft-serve ice cream. His store was the very 1st anywhere that sold soft ice cream.

“Soft ice cream” was unlike traditional ice cream at the time and 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.

In 1936, Carvel presented his patented machine which made fresh, soft ice cream and established the Carvel Corporation.

The concept was a hit right away, and Carvel went on to sell his “Miracle Machines” to countless ice cream shops around the US for the next 11 years. However, many shopkeepers found it difficult to operate his machines properly, so the ice cream mogul devised a strategy of personally visiting his clients and educating them about how to operate their machines.

Carvel came up with the concept of having his name on ice cream shops around the country in 1947. Many of them, after all, were already using his proprietary machines.

His concept of opening soft ice cream shops under his own name, as well as his guidance to shopkeepers, can be compared to what today we know as a franchise. In 1947, he opened his 1st franchise, and by 1951 he had 100 Carvel Ice Cream stores across America.

Another unique feature that made Carvel popular was that he was one of the first business executives to be featured prominently in product advertisements. His distinctive voice was used in radio ads, which were then repeated on television, and the guy with the white moustache became a household name in most American homes.

After that, Carvel’s company started producing novelty ice cream cakes. His festive Santa Claus ice cream cakes, as well as the whale ice cream cake, were huge hits. Of course, this is all in keeping with his ice cream’s stellar reputation for freshness and softness.

Tom Carvel died in 1990 at the age of 84, leaving behind a thriving business with 500 locations — and a legacy of making customers happy with his ice cream. Carvel Ice Cream is just one of the many success stories of Greek-American culture.

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