The origin story here is as modest and kick-ass as any, and why there hasn’t been a movie made about Tom Carvel, I have no idea. In 1934, the twenty-three-year-old borrows fifteen bucks from his bride-to-be, Agnes. Builds an ice cream truck and starts selling in the New York metro area. Truck has a flat tire in Hartsdale, in the parking lot of a pottery store. He may as well try to sell out the contents and he does. The new-ish ideas are the fixed location and the partially melted texture destined to be branded “soft-serve”.
Tom locks in the location and sells more. He patents refrigeration technology and when the adoptees of those devices prove incapable of running operations efficiently or up to health standards, he decides to take a more active role in managing those businesses. Fast-forward a few years and he’s got a true franchise enterprise going with 25 stores by the early ’50s, over 200 by the early ’60s, and over 850 by the mid-’80s.
In the late ’80s, Carvel, pushing 90, sells out to an investment corporation named, I kid you not, Investcorp. (Investment bankers – where imagination goes to die.) In 2001, along with seemingly half the gross national assets of the United States, the brand is purchased by a private equity firm.
Carvel-branded products are still going strong, relatively speaking, available in supermarkets nationwide. But the ice cream stores (heck, let’s go ahead and call them stands, since that’s what this story is really about) are down around 500, well below their peak and not even in the same universe as the 5,000-plus Dairy Queen franchises at home in the US and abroad.
For those who came of age in the New York area in the ’70s, Tom Carvel’s gravelly voice and brusque charm memorably enhanced the commercial breaks of the mid-week Star Trek reruns and Saturday Creature Features. Perhaps that voice didn’t play well to the Midwestern markets where DQ rose to prominence, heartland folks more responsive to the likes of Dave Thomas or Colonel Sanders.