Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Happy anniversary to an American icon

Growing up in the New York area during the 1960s and ‘70s, there were two absolutes to life: The Yankees were a much cooler team than the Mets, even when they stunk, and nothing was funnier than a dead-on Tom Carvel impression.

Those of you exposed to the spots are undoubtedly aping Carvel’s unique voice right now. His plugs for Fudgie the Whale, Cookie Puss, Tom the Turkey and a surreal Christmas cake are indelibly stamped into your memories. But for the sake of those who were cursed to live outside the cult of the spinning Carvel cone, let me explain.

Carvel was the founder and longtime chairman of a soft-serve ice cream chain that was integral to life in the New York suburbs. Carvel’s signature products were cones—15 cents for a small, 25 cents for a large, which was big enough to feed all of Paraguay for a year. Yet Tom would come on the air to push his higher-ticket cakes—most of which were made from the same mold. Somehow, the shape of a chocolate whale could be reconfigured into a big-cheeked Santa Claus around Christmas. The spots were our equivalent of Cal Worthington or Earl Scheib commercials, or any number of late-night local station ads. They were downright campy from the get-go.

Yet you couldn’t help but regard Tom as sort of an eccentric uncle, because his business was an integral part of our lives. My father would usually treat us to a Carvel visit ever Sunday night. We’d park in front of a walk-up window with the spinning giant cone atop the building, then get out to ogle the Brown and Cherry Bonnets. When my 8th Grade baseball team pulled out a big win, the coach took us to a Carvel. And every birthday or other special occasion was celebrated in grade school with a box of Carvel Flying Saucers, the chain's take on the ice cream sandwich.

We, of course, never comprehended that Tom Carvel was a pioneer of the restaurant business, a true trailblazer in franchising. Unfortunately, part of his legacy was a lawsuit that forever determined that franchisors couldn’t force franchisees to buy particular products from the home office. He might’ve also been the consummate example of a concept founder who should’ve been more open to new ideas. By the time he passed away, Carvel had to do a lot of catching up with the times. It also had a heap of problems with franchisees, many of whom were second or third-generation owners.

The concept was eventually sold to Focus Brands, which today also owns Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon. It’s corrected much of the neglect that was visited upon the brand under the later years of Tom Carvel’s stewardship, and is growing the business again.

All of this comes to mind because this is Carvel’s 75th anniversary. For those of us who cheered the Yankees and booed the Mets, this is an important occasion. I might celebrate by having a whole Fudgie the Whale on my own.

For the rest of you, trust me when I say that this is an occasion to salute a true American icon. Let’s hear it for Tom, Carvel, and of course Cookie Puss.

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