Tom Carvel: The Greek inventor of soft Ice Cream in America

It all started with a flat tire…

Let’s face it, we all love ice cream — and some of us are very fond of soft ice cream. Yet it is not widely known in Greece that the man who invented soft ice cream was a Greek immigrant in the United States whose name became legend there.

Carvel Ice Cream is among the best known brands in the U.S., with over 500 stores and a broad online business profile. For decades, its founder, Tom Carvel, was a household name. And like many great stories, it all started by accident. Because of a flat tire, to be specific, back 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 America. 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.” It was only then that he decided to become an ice cream vendor. He borrowed $15 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.

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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 people going by.

It turned out that passersby 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. And 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 to a roadside ice cream shop. 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.

Read more: Greek Gateway