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Tom Carvel: The Greek Who Introduced Soft Ice Cream to America

Tom Carvel
Greek-American Tom Carvel appearing in a commercial selling ice cream. Credit: Facebook/US Embassy, Athens

Tom Carvel, born Athanassios Karvelas in Athens, was brought to the United States as a child from his native Greece.

The Greek immigrant was the man who invented soft ice cream in the US and whose name became a legend there.

Carvel Ice Cream is among the best known brands in the U.S., with over five hundred stores and a broad online business profile.

For decades, its founder, Tom Carvel, was a household name. Like many great stories, it all started by accident because of a flat tire, to be specific, in 1934.

The Karvelas family made the fateful decision in the early twentieth century to leave what was then impoverished Greece for the promised land that was the U.S. Young Thanassis Karvelas was only four years of age when he left Athens and arrived in Connecticut with his parents.

A few years later, his father, Andreas, sold wine in Greek restaurants during the years of the Prohibition.

By the age of 23, Thanassis, a restless spirit, had tried and left several jobs. By then, he had changed his name to the more American-sounding “Tom Carvel.”

Starting as an ice cream vendor

It was only then that he decided to become an ice cream vendor. He borrowed fifteen dollars from his future wife and took to the streets of Hartsdale, New York with his truck, selling ice cream from one of its windows.

It was Memorial Day in 1934, one of the hottest days of the summer, when Carvel’s truck got a flat tire and he had to pull into a parking lot, located next to a pottery store. Meanwhile, his ice cream had begun to melt.

Tom ran into the pottery shop to ask to use their electric power to save his merchandise and asked the store owner if he could also sell his ice cream on the spot.

The pottery store owner promptly agreed, and the Greek-American entrepreneur began selling his melted ice cream to passersby.

It turned out that they actually adored his almost-melted, “soft” ice cream, and within two days, the Greek merchant had sold every bit of the ice cream he had had in his truck.

It suddenly dawned on him that it was actually easier to sell his ice cream from a fixed location. His second revelation was that people really liked soft ice cream.

Two years later, Carvel bought the pottery store where he had experienced his revelation and turned it into a roadside ice cream shop.

Greek-American Tom Carvel’s secret formula for ice cream

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.

Building an ice-cream empire

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 whale ice cream cake, as well as his festive Santa Claus ice cream cakes, became great hits—all true to the great reputation of his fresh, soft ice cream, of course.

Tom Carvel passed away in 1990 at the age of eighty-four, leaving behind a hugely-successful company with five hundred stores—and a legacy of making people happy with his ice cream. Carvel Ice Cream is just another of the many tales of success in the history of Greek-Americans.


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