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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

Yummy Origin Stories: Soft Serve Ice Cream

We love food! We especially love creative food treats that were invented to make us happy, if not necessarily healthy. You just know the origin stories of those delightful products have to be interesting and probably surprising, too!

We live in a wonder-filled world when it comes to ice cream! We can get gourmet, small batch, farm-to-fridge French strawberry dream ice cream at the supermarket, candied chestnut or honeysuckle gelato delivered to our door every week (6- or 12-pack sizes), and slow-churned pumpkin pie ice cream by the quart.

Not to mention booze-corrupted concoctions, like Haagen-Dazs’s bourbon vanilla bean truffle, available at every corner store. In fact, in some towns where laws allow, adults-only liquor ice cream trucks now troll the streets on summer nights.

But sometimes, really, all we crave is the swirly simple goodness of a drive-up soft serve ice cream in a good old, machine-molded wafer cone. The genius behind this all-American treat was none other than Greek-born businessman Athanassios Karvelas – better known as Tom Carvel. And like all the best inventions, its creation was accidental.

Carvel was driving his regular ice cream truck around Hartsdale, NY, on Memorial Day weekend, 1934. A tire blew on the truck, so he pulled into a parking lot.

While waiting for a repair, his cargo of ice cream began to melt. Thinking fast, he put up a sign and started selling his new “Soft Ice Creams” to vacationers driving by. The idea caught on like crazy and he soon built the first Carvel ice cream shop selling soft serve in the very same parking lot.

Dairy Queen wouldn’t come on the scene until two years later, in 1936.

Carvel went on to invent and patent the first soft serve ice cream machine, set up the first ice cream franchise business and design the first glass-front, slant-roofed shop -- later copied by McDonalds.

Carvel, as the company’s paternal CEO, starred in his own TV commercials, pitching Flying Saucer and Icy Wycy ice cream treats, and soft serve specials in his own inimitable gravelly voice.

There are 500 Carvel franchise stores around the world today.

Carvel TV ad from 1978:

Photos (from top): Soft serve cone/; Carvel franchise store architectural rendering, 1940s/National Museum of American History by permission; Tom Carvel/;

Carvel promotional comic book, 1973/National Museum of American History by permission.

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