By Patricia Burstein
July 31, 1978 12:00 PM

‘Never forget,’ he preaches, ‘the customer is the only thing between you and failure’

It is graduation day at Ice Cream U for a class of six—three middle-aged couples who have invested their life savings in Carvel soft ice cream stores. All have spent 14 grueling days (“from 8 a.m. to unconscious”) at the Yonkers, N.Y. Carvel Inn, learning the mysteries of merchandising, production and quick-freeze machines. Now it is time for the commencement address from founder Tom Carvel himself.

He is short on sentimentality and reassurance. For an hour he ranges from decorating an ice cream cake (“Don’t make a Rembrandt of it”) to customer relations (“Remember they’re poor schnooks like yourself”). “The only thing I can guarantee is failure,” he warns, “unless you work, work, work.”

It was that kind of single-mindedness that took Tom Carvel from poor immigrant kid to 72-year-old multimillionaire. Today his franchise empire boasts some 750 stores in 16 states, mostly in the East. Last year they scooped up more than $600 million in sales. One reason is the radio and TV commercials that Tom reads himself—masterpieces of bad diction, worse grammar and sales genius. “All words are just noise flying through the air,” Carvel philosophizes.

He sternly dispels the notion that a Carvel franchise (which costs $75,000 to $100,000, including equipment) is an easy get-rich scheme. “You’ve got to be willing to mop floors,” Carvel advises new franchise owners. “Don’t buy fancy cars and clothes before you have paid for the business.” Indeed, he closed down all but three of 22 stores in California in recent years, he says, because of mismanagement. “Some of them went Hollywood on me,” he grumbles.

“You can’t run a business unless you’re a tyrant,” Carvel says. And some of his franchise owners think he lives up to that belief only too well. Rebelling against a company rule which requires Carvel-approved ingredients, one group in California sued him in 1957. The legal battle went on for eight years, until Carvel finally won in the U.S. Supreme Court. “The day we don’t control the quality of the product,” he thunders, “your store won’t be worth 10 cents. The first day we poison one child we’re out of business.”

Born Thomas Carvelas in Athens, Greece, he emigrated to the U.S. at age 4 with his parents, three brothers and three sisters. His father scrambled to support his family on New York’s teeming Lower East Side by working as a wine chemist—during Prohibition. Young Tom was forced to work in the country when a tubercular spot was discovered on his lung. Borrowing $15 from his girlfriend, Agnes, he bought a truckload of ice cream to peddle. That partnership flourished both personally (they got married) and financially over the next 40 years.

Away from the business, Carvel is a 12 or 14 handicap golfer (his account varies) who often plays with buddies Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason. Tom and Agnes split their time between a home in West Palm Beach, a converted barn in Ardsley, N.Y. and a 710-acre resort in upstate New York. Even with all the rewards from a lifetime of toil, Carvel insists he will never retire. “I’m never really working because whatever I do, I enjoy,” he says. “The operation of a business of this kind is better than any Ph.D. you can get.”