When an unassuming, wide-eyed, young Greek immigrant arrived in America in 1910, the world did not yet know that this boy named Tom Carvel would grow up to be an inventor, an innovator, and, ultimately, an American icon.
Athanassios Karvelas came to the United States as a child from Greece in 1910 with his parents and six siblings. At the age of 26, after a variety of careers that ranged from a drummer in a Dixieland band to an auto test driver for Studebakers, Carvel was incorrectly diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis and fled to the country air of Westchester, New York.
Borrowing $15 from his future wife Agnes, Tom began selling ice cream from his battered truck. Memorial Day weekend of 1934, Tom’s truck suffered a flat tire so he pulled his trailer into a parking lot next to a pottery store and began selling his melting ice cream to vacationers driving by.
The Carvel story was chronicled in the Images of America book series with a book.
Within two days, Tom had sold his entire supply of ice cream, and realized that he could make a lot more money working from a fixed location. The generous potter allowed Tom to hook into his store’s electricity, and Tom opened for business. Two years later, Tom bought the pottery store, converted it into a roadside stand, and permanently established himself as the first retailer to develop and market soft ice cream.
With the coming of World War II, Carvel was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he served as a refrigeration consultant and concessionaire. With some tinkering, Carvel discovered how to instantly freeze ingredients to produce a creamy ribbon of ice cream at the flick of a switch. It was the first soft-ice-cream machine of its kind.
One store grew to many, and by 1950, 21 stores were operating under the Carvel name. With that, Carvel joined a group of franchising pioneers, including A&W, White Castle, and Howard Johnson’s, that were creating roadside chains that served up what would become known as fast food.
Still, the ice cream business was a warm-weather enterprise, and Carvel needed to generate store traffic throughout the year. Again, the ice cream gods intervened. Pieces of crumbled cookies accidentally fell into a vat of soft ice cream placed in a freezer, and when the hardened batch was discovered, it led to another innovation: the Carvel ice cream cake.
Carvel’s climb might have been even more astounding had he not rejected an invitation from a milkshake-machine salesman named Ray Kroc to join him in a fledgling California hamburger business named McDonald’s. “Tom claimed it was his biggest error,” says Thomas Kornacki, a Carvel vice president in the 1990s who worked for the company for 23 years.
Today, Carvel is one of the nation’s largest retail ice cream franchises, Carvel Ice Cream with over 500 franchised and foodservice locations serving delicious, high-quality ice cream cakes, premium soft serve, hand dipped ice cream, novelties and fountain items. Carvel products are available in over 10,000 supermarkets nationwide.
Prominent Greek immigrants like Athenassios Karvelas are an inspiration to anyone looking to create better lives for themselves. In an age where people seek out instant gratification, it’s nice to be reminded that you can start with a small amount of money and build an empire! In his case, he started with $15 and went on to become one of the most recognizable names in ice cream