Tom Carvel

Westchester businessman Tom Carvel was a self-made success story. His name is synonymous with the product he created—soft ice cream. A smart and tough businessman, he was among the early adopters of using a franchise system to grow his business. He was also the first chief executive officer of a company to serve as spokesperson/commercial announcer for radio and television, proving that dulcet tones are not necessary for building product sales. "Thinny thin ice cream for your fatty fat friends" may perhaps be the most memorable of his ad lines.

Early Life

Born Athanassios Karvelas in Greece, his family emigrated to the United States in 1910 when Tom was only four. The family shortened their name to Carvel at that time, and his parents soon moved the seven Carvel children to Stratford, Connecticut, where they grew up.

Tom hoped for a career as a musician, and in his early 20s he played the drums in a Dixieland band. To make ends meet, he worked as a test driver for the Studebaker car company, and on weekends he drove an ice cream truck.

Tom Carvel

Tom Carvel at his store and office on Tuckahoe Road in Yonkers, 1979. Photograph by Kathy Lener.

Carvel was known for occasionally embellishing his past, but the story goes that on Memorial Day weekend in 1934 his ice cream truck broke down in Hartsdale. He pulled into a parking lot and sold the beginning-to-melt ice cream to weekend travelers as they passed by. From this experience he gleaned two valuable lessons: he could save on wear-and-tear if he established one location for selling, and if he could figure out a way to mass-produce a soft form of ice cream, he might be on to something.

The parking lot he had pulled into was outside of a pottery store. Carvel made a deal with the store owner to plug in some of his refrigeration equipment at the store on weekends. Roadside sales from this location were strong enough that two years later, Carvel purchased the pottery store and created his first permanent ice cream shop. (This location remained a Carvel store until the property was sold in 2006; the shop was torn down soon after and replaced with a Japanese restaurant.)

Soft ice cream—also known then as frozen custard—was first created by British chemists who discovered a method of doubling the amount of air within ice cream to create a softer product. However, Tom and his brother, Bruce, created a machine that could dispense the soft ice cream. The machine could fast-freeze the ingredients, and then small quantities (6 oz.) of soft ice cream could be pumped out. Carvel eventually patented his invention, and went on to hold over 300 patents, trademarks and copyrights on various ice cream-related items and products.

In 1937 Tom married Agnes Stewart. Agnes was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1908. She and her family left Scotland in April 1912 for Montreal, where she attended business school. Agnes and her family moved to New York City in the 1920's

With the approach of World War II, Carvel was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he served as a refrigeration consultant and concessionaire. This experience provided him with added knowledge for creating better freezing systems for his company.

When the war ended Carvel was ready to grow his business, so he began selling the ice cream machines he and his brother had perfected. The restaurateurs who bought them had trouble operating the machines, so Tom realized he had to devise a way to expand the business while maintaining product control.

He decided to follow the small but growing group of businesses that were selling franchises for their businesses. (Singer Sewing Machine Company is thought to be the first company to sell franchises, and they did so in the 1850s.) By the early 20th century, food businesses that were beginning to experiment with franchising included White Castle (1923), A&W (1925), Kentucky Fried Chicken (1930), and Howard Johnson (1935).

Carvel sold his first franchise in 1947. As an immigrant himself, Tom Carvel welcomed others new to the United States into his franchise operation, and within the next few years he opened 25 more franchised stores. To train those who wanted to buy a franchise he opened the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge (also known as Sundae School). By the 1980s there were more than 700 Carvel outlets along the East Coast.

At one point Carvel had thought of expanding into hospitality and bought a motel in Yonkers. He soon decided against taking his business in this new direction, and instead turned the motel into accommodations for future franchisees and used some rooms as classrooms.

Business Innovations

Fudgie the Whale

Carvel's famous Fudgie the Whale® ice cream cake.

The Carvel Company may be best known for its ice cream cakes, and the idea of creating these cake products occurred to Carvel when he noted that the staff inevitably had slow times. The cake products he wanted to sell and trained the staffs to decorate are memorable: Fudgie the Whale springs to most people's minds, and Cookie Puss was made additionally famous in the 1980s when a hip-hop group, the Beastie Boys, released a song called "Cooky Puss."

Other product innovations Carvel developed included the Flying Saucer, the first round ice cream sandwich (1951); in 1972 he responded to American interest in less fattening food with the introduction of Lo-Yo frozen yogurt and Thinny-Thin frozen dessert.

Carvel was also an innovator in marketing. He was among the first to try increasing sales via "buy one, get one free." And when he started buying radio ads in the 1950s, he got frustrated when announcers made mistakes with the ad copy. In 1955 Carvel, who had a nasal and gravelly-sounding voice, decided to begin doing the Carvel commercials himself. "I can't find anyone cheaper than me," Carvel was to have said. The do-it-yourself commercials (he recorded them without a script and did not permit editing by the sound engineers) became so popular that he inspired other CEOs to follow his lead. Sy Syms was soon selling suits on television, and Lee Iacocca personally promoted Chryslers.

Over time, Carvel built the company to be the world's third largest chain of ice cream stores, behind only Dairy Queen and Häagen-Dazs. The corporate headquarters were at 201 Saw Mill River Road in Yonkers.

Tom Carvel was known for being a tough business owner but a low-key fellow. His golf companions included well-known people such as comedians Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason and singer Perry Como, but he drove a Chevrolet and maintained a middle-class lifestyle, albeit with an extra home or two. He and Agnes maintained a full-time residence in Ardsley, but they had one vacation home in Florida and another in Pine Plains, New York.

The Carvels had no children, and in 1976 they formed a charitable foundation where they planned to leave their money. The intent of the foundation was to fund causes that benefited children and families, and during the time that Tom and Agnes steered the giving, they tended to give smaller gifts to more places; they rarely wanted the Carvel name attached to whatever they were funding.

Legal Problems

As with any large entity, the Carvel Corporation had its share of problems. In 1963 a group of franchisees asked for an FTC investigation of the Carvel Corporation, claiming that Carvel was illegally lessening competition by placing too many restrictions on franchise dealers. Carvel defended his franchise requirements, stating they were necessary to maintain quality control. In 1966 Carvel won an award of more than $10 million dollars from the franchise groups for filing a "baseless suit."

But the issue did not totally go away. In 1979 the New York State Attorney General opened an anti-trust investigation into possible restraint of trade by Carvel. By 1985 the Carvel Corporation had lost 25 percent of its business because of the entanglement. The case dragged on for several years, and the attorney general dropped the inquiry only after Carvel agreed to license independent suppliers to sell some of the products.

In November 1989 Carvel sold his company to an investment firm, Investcorp, for $80 million dollars, and the new owners—who had previously invested in companies like Avon and Tiffany—moved Carvel headquarters out of Westchester to Farmington, Connecticut. They also made a major policy decision. For the first time, Carvel products became available for supermarket sales.

In 2001 Investcorp sold Carvel to Roark Capital Group, and at that point the Carvel Corporation was divided into two specialties. The franchise headquarters is now based in Atlanta, while supermarket sales are masterminded from Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

Carvel's Death

Weekends would generally find the Carvels at their home in Pine Plains (Dutchess County) where Tom loved to play golf on the course he had built there. In October 1990 journalist Joel Siegel wrote in Portfolio magazine (August 2008) that Carvel arrived for the weekend feeling pre-occupied. He was concerned that two of his long-time employees, corporate attorney Robert Davis and personal assistant Mildred Aracadipane, were scheming behind his back. Siegel indicated that Carvel may have intended to deal with the issue the following Monday. He played a round of golf Saturday afternoon, went to bed that night and never woke up. The New York Times obituary said that "apparently he died in his sleep…."

Hartsdale Store

The original Carvel store on Central Avenue in Hartsdale on its last day of operation, October 5, 2008. Photograph by Patrick Raftery.

Foreshadowing the events that were to occur later were attorney Robert Davis's actions on the days immediately following Carvel's death. While Agnes was at the wake, Davis, who was also on the Carvel Foundation board, hired a locksmith to help him break into the Carvel home to search for the will. Since that time there have been numerous legal battles and scandalous headlines.

By 1996 attorney Davis and Mildred Arcadipane, also a foundation board member, were forced to resign from the foundation. They were accused of taking money for their own use and engineering a stock sale to benefit themselves.

The foundation has continued to give generously to organizations that help children and families, but during Robert Davis's tenure as paid president, the philosophy was altered somewhat. The foundation gave to the same type of causes, but it began to award fewer grants in larger amounts and with that came the willingness to exert naming privileges, so there are now some facilities that are named for the Carvels.

By 1997 there were still more headlines. Two nieces were fighting over where Agnes should live. Pamela Carvel (daughter of Bruce, the brother who had helped Tom work out his refrigeration techniques) moved Agnes to London in 1994 or '95 to "protect" her from the family. Niece Betty Godley, daughter of Agnes's brother, William Stewart, wanted Agnes back in Westchester to be near Jane.

An outside guardian was appointed to watch over Agnes Carvel's interests but more wrangling ensued. Pamela Carvel hired a private detective to look into numerous things, and writer Joel Siegel reported that the investigator brought Pamela evidence that led to her suspicion that Tom Carvel's heart medicine may have been tampered with, causing his death. In 2007 she filed a lawsuit in District Court in Fort Lauderdale, asking among other things for her uncle's body to be exhumed to re-examine the cause of death.

When Agnes died in London in 1998, Pamela ordered that the body be cremated, but this was met with legal action brought by other members of the family who suspected foul play. Few of these subsequent legal issues have been resolved.

In the meantime, the business chugs along under its new owners. In 2004 Carvel received the Guinness World Record for "largest ice cream cake" on the occasion of the company's 70th birthday, and as proof that Carvel is viewed as big-time in America, the Smithsonian has dedicated a special section of the museum to Carvel history and memorabilia.

In the meantime, the foundation continues to award generous grants, among them a $1.3 million gift in 2008 to the yet-to-be-built Westchester Children's Museum.

Tom Carvel was the quintessential American entrepreneur—hard working, energetic, opinionated, and very independent. While Carvel's long-term legacy will be his cakes and soft ice cream and the generous donations the foundation has made, it will take many years for the family controversies to be put to rest.