The Melty Accident That Led To The Creation Of Soft Serve Ice Cream

Imagine a world without Fudgie the Whale. It would be a joyless reality of facing one birthday after another without the iconic whale-shaped ice cream cake made possible by the invention of soft serve ice cream. If not for an unfortunate bit of car trouble and a quick-thinking ice cream entrepreneur, that could have been our sad fate. But thankfully it's not, and here's why. 

In 1932, Greek immigrant Athanasios Thomas Karvelas bought a used truck and opened a mobile ice cream business, a precursor to today's roving ice cream man. Two years later, in 1934, the truck broke down at the worst possible time. It was Memorial Day Weekend in New York and it was hot. Confident he'd make a killing selling ice cream to sunburned revelers, Karvelas was on his way to the beach, but he didn't make it. A flat tire stopped him in his tracks. Karvelas knew he had to act fast.

As his inventory began to melt, Karvelas considered his options. He noticed a nearby pottery shop and ran over to see if he could somehow hook up to their electricity to save the ice cream. As that effort proved fruitless, Karvelas noticed something extraordinary; people were gathering around his broken-down truck hoping to buy some of his, by now, soft ice cream. Recognizing an opportunity, Karvelas set up a makeshift bench and served his unexpected, and sun-drenched, customers. The rest, as they say, is history.

We all scream for ice cream

By now you've probably realized the entrepreneurial Greek immigrant named Athanasios Thomas Karvelas is the very same Tom Carvel who, over the next few decades, built a self-named soft serve ice cream empire. Inspired by his lemons-to-lemonade experience, Carvel developed and patented a machine to maintain the temperature of ice cream precisely at the soft serve sweet spot. By some accounts, he bought the pottery shop near the site of his fortuitous accident. Others say he found a nearby lot and parked his truck permanently. Either way, one thing is clear: Tom Carvel founded the first soft serve retail ice cream company in America at the site of his accidental discovery. But there's so much more to his legacy.

When business customers who purchased his patented soft serve machine had trouble teaching employees how to use the gadget, Carvel heeded their call for help, often visiting sites in person to demonstrate proper use of the equipment, and eventually establishing a central training center. He named the learning center, set up in a refurbished Yonkers, New York motel, the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge. Also known as the Sundae School, it's where Carvel's iconic Cookie Puss cake originated. Legend has it that a student in residence created the cake in Carvel's likeness. As for Fudgie the Whale, that was Carvel's idea. In 1977, the ice cream entrepreneur was brainstorming marketing ideas for a Father's Day promotion when he dreamt up Fudgie and the tagline, "A whale of a cake for a whale of a Dad."