Carvel was founded and run by Tom Carvel for its first 60 years. In 1929, Tom Carvel built and began operating a frozen custard trailer. For Memorial Day weekend of 1934, Carvel borrowed $15 from his future wife Agnes to buy a load of frozen custard to sell to holiday vacationers. When the truck suffered a flat tire in Hartsdale, New York, Carvel started selling his custard at the site of the breakdown, the parking lot of a pottery store. Within two days, his entire stock, much of it partly melted, had been sold, and Carvel realized that both a fixed location and soft (as opposed to hard) frozen desserts were potentially good business ideas. In his first year there, he grossed over $3500. By 1937 he had a custard stand at the Hartsdale site, with a freezer which allowed him to make his own frozen custard. By 1939, gross was over $6000. The original Hartsdale store was closed on Sunday, October 5, 2008.
In the early 1940s, Tom Carvel traveled, selling custard at carnivals, while his wife Agnes ran the Hartsdale location. During World War II he ran the ice cream stands at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, gaining additional expertise in refrigeration technology. He soon invented and patented his own freezer, the "Custard King", and in 1947 sold 71 freezers at $2900 each. Some of the freezer purchasers defaulted on payments on the units, and upon investigation, Carvel found that they were not running their businesses efficiently, choosing poor locations and not always maintaining high health standards. Carvel decided that the best way to correct the situation was to participate in running the operations of his freezer customers; he later claimed this led him to develop the concept of franchising.
Franchising and advertising
By 1949, Carvel had begun franchising under the name "Carvel Dairy Freeze", and there were 25 stores by the early 1950s. New franchisees undertook an 18-day training program at the "Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge", and were sent an in-house magazine called "The Shopper's Road". In addition Carvel provided building plans for franchises as well, initially stand-alone glass fronted stores.
In 1955, Carvel began to record his own radio commercials. An unsubstantiated anecdote relates that he was driving in New York City, and heard a commercial for a new Carvel's store which did not mention the new store's location. Convinced he could do better, he drove to the radio station and did the next commercial himself. True or not, from 1955 onwards, Carvel recorded nearly all of the chain's advertising, eventually maintaining an in-house production studio at the headquarters offices, and becoming something of a regional celebrity.
Carvel's commercials stood out and raised brand awareness primarily through their lack of sophistication. Carvel had a distinctive "gravelly" voice, lacking the "slick" sound of most professional voice-over artists, and all his narration was unrehearsed. His wording was conversational, with commercials frequently ending with the words "Thank You". Television commercials, aired primarily in the "tri-state area" of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, began in 1971. Accompanied by the familiar Tom Carvel narration, footage showed the products, and employees in the stores; very few graphics or effects were used.
Promotions were part of Carvel's practices from their earliest days. In 1936, they had a "Buy One Get One Free" promotion, and in later years had various contests. They were an early adopter of corporate sponsorship of various events and tie-in promotions, including a tie-in with the New York Yankees. A long-running and well-known campaign was the "Wednesday is Sundae at Carvel!" discount.
The mainstays of Carvel's line of ice cream cakes were 7", 8", 9", 10" and 12" rounds, 10"x14" and 12"x17" sheet cakes, and the "Carvelog," a log-shaped cake made in a cylindrical mold. In addition to Cookie Puss, there were also special cakes for most major holidays, including a "Flower Basket" for Mother's Day, "Hoot The Owl" for June graduations, "Dumpy the Pumpkin" and "Wicky The Witch"for Halloween, "Tom the Turkey" for Thanksgiving,"Seamus The Leprechuan" for St.Patrick's day, and a "Snow Man" for Christmas. Most of these were made from one of a limited number of molds and their primary differences from products available year-round were the designs on the icing.
Carvel also popularized various ice cream "novelty" items, such as the "Flying Saucer", a circular ice cream sandwich, the "Icy Wycy," a paper cone of sherbet on a stick, "Brown Bonnet" and "Cherry Bonnet," frozen vanilla ice cream on a sugar cone dipped in a sweet, waxy confection, the "Tortoni," a cup of vanilla ice cream covered with toasted coconut and topped with a maraschino cherry, and the "Lollapalooza," cylindrical ice cream on a stick covered with colored sprinkles, as well as the less popular "Mamapalooza" and "Papapalooza."
In 1956, Carvel transformed the Hartsdale location into their first "Ice Cream Supermarket" by adding freezer cases containing these and other pre-made cakes and novelty items which customers could pick out and buy immediately. Also, in 1955, Carvel began its "lease back land offer" program, in which a potential investor could buy land, build a franchise, and then lease it back to the corporation.
Carvel experimented with various ice cream vehicle options for most of their early history; from the first truck through to at least 1970. Vehicle concepts included a scooter (circa 1957) and a custom truck, the "Carvehicle", for which they applied for several patents (circa 1958).
A dispute with franchisees came to a head in 1962. Independent owners attempted to buy products from outside the corporate supply chain (in conflict with their contracts), maintaining that the company was deliberately overcharging them. Carvel argued that the franchisees were trying to use inferior ingredients. As well as the immediate impact on corporate cash flow, this hurt the corporate image, dropping the chain to 175 stores. When the corporation tried to enforce this contract, the Federal Trade Commission sued them for restraint of trade; legal proceedings reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1964, with the corporation emerging victorious.
In 1967, the corporation bought the Westchester Town House Motel, on Tuckahoe Road in Yonkers, New York and renamed it the Carvel Inn, converting it for use as corporate headquarters, while still operating it as a hotel, providing them with a conference center for the annual franchisee conventions.
During the late 1970s Carvel attempted to distinguish itself from other purveyors of soft-serve ice cream by claiming that its ice-cream machines did not infuse the product with air, unlike the competition.
During the 1970s, when dieting and fitness became more popular, Carvel began offering a low-fat frozen dessert called Thinny-Thin and a frozen yogurt product called Lo-Yo.
From 1973 to 1975 Carvel published a promotional comic book.
By 1985, there were 865 stores with an income of over $300 million.
Carvel introduced the Lil' Love ice cream cake on March 30, 1998. The commercials, which first appeared in its introduction, show small children in special situations, such as losing a baby tooth, starring in a class play, getting an A in a school class, and getting new glasses. A mother presents the new cake to celebrate. All ads carry the tag line Surprise someone special tonight.
After Tom Carvel
In 1989, an aging Tom Carvel sold the corporation to Investcorp for over $80 million. In 1991, headquarters was moved to Farmington, Connecticut.
On December 11, 2001, Roark Capital Group, a private equity firm, purchased a controlling interest in Carvel Corporation from Investcorp. Investcorp became a minority share holder.
Carvel was for most of its history a regional business, most strongly based on the East Coast of the USA. As the business climate has changed, so has some of the focus of the brand. There are, as of 2005, approximately 530 retail franchises, far fewer than at their peak. Carvel branded products are available in over 9500 supermarkets. Celebration Foods has pushed the brand's presence from 30 states in 2004 to 49 in 2008, allowing them to form merchandising partnerships with national brands, such as ice cream cakes featuring Mars's M&M's characters. Focus Brands is based in Atlanta, GA, Celebration Foods is based in New Britain, Connecticut.
In August 2007, the current owner of the very first Carvel store in Hartsdale revealed that he had applied for permission to knock down the store and develop a retail strip on the property.
In late march of 2009, the hartsdale location (first Carvel location) was completely demolished. A Japanese restaurant will replace the iconic birthplace of franchising.