Tom Carvel Only Gave Franchises to Poor People

Bob Lefsetz is a music industry observer, and publisher of the Lefsetz letter:


Tom Carvel would only give franchises to poor people.

Ever since I went to Jim Lewi’s food festival at Shoreline, I’ve been hooked by the Food Network. It started watching Triple D on on demand, then Felice got hooked on the competition shows and now it’s a TV mainstay.

Triple D? That’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives”. Unless you only eat haute cuisine or believe salt is the enemy and hot dogs will give you cancer, you’ve got to watch this show: Individuals like indie bands start their own restaurants, follow their own muse, and deliver food so delectable that word spreads, until someone e-mails host Guy Fieri and he shows up with his camera crew. I can’t cook a lick, but the way the owners put a dollop of this and a dash of that into a pot and end up delivering something that generates smiles is incredibly intriguing, makes me want to buy a Camaro and take to the road just like Guy. (Who’s actually taking to the road, doing his own tour, see dates here: I’ve seen his act and he’s got tons more star power than most musicians, he knows how to work a crowd.)

So that’s become the default channel on Felice’s television, the Food Network. And when I walked into the bedroom after listening to Tom Petty on Blu-Ray, she was watching a show about legends. On screen was Tom Carvel.


It was really an east coast thing, Felice wasn’t familiar. But Carvel ice cream was the Ben & Jerry’s of its day. A special treat that made you feel fully alive with every lick, a cult we were proud to be a member of.

There was one outlet downtown. And another on the Post Road in Westport. Around the corner from our house, on Black Rock Turnpike, was Dairy Queen. We went there after each Little League victory, but it was akin to Wonder Bread. Sure, you could lacquer your cone with a hard plastic shell, but the ice cream?

Whereas on the way home from the beach, or after dinner on a hot summer evening, my dad would pile us into the station wagon and we’d drive down to Carvel. The way he testified, you’d think he owned the place. At Carvel, you weren’t limited to vanilla. No, you could have chocolate with a hard chocolate shell! Or even a strawberry shell! And occasionally strawberry ice cream! And unlike Dairy Queen, the ice cream didn’t only feel good on your tongue, it titillated your taste buds, it was rich and creamy.

Butter fat. That was the secret according to a Carvel man in this documentary.

Tom Carvel knew Ray Kroc. He bought mixers from him before Ray blew up McDonald’s. And Ray wanted Tom to throw in with him, but Tom didn’t think Kroc’s idea was so hot, and thought it better to do one thing best.

Carvel was like a religion. My dad would buy Flying Saucers. I didn’t know they were hand-made in each store until watching this documentary. Ditto on the ice cream cakes. Come on, getting a Carvel ice cream cake for your birthday? That was living!

But what truly fascinated me was Tom’s franchising strategy. He only made deals with poor people. Because they would work hard, it was a family business. In an era where the rich own everything at a distance, where the poor are employees who can’t rise above, this was a revelation. Just give us a chance, we’ll show you, we’ll put our hearts and minds into it, and all of our time!

We may not have the skills to work on Wall Street, but it turns out all those quants didn’t either. And Wall Street used to build America, now it just builds the private edifices of fat cats.

Kind of like the music business.

Once upon a time, there were pioneers, progenitors. Many with colorful pasts, but Ahmet and Morris Levy and Mo Ostin built this business. Where are their stories?

Oh yeah, VH1 is for criminals, social outcasts who cavort on screen for the mentally challenged. As for MTV, the reality pioneer? There’s no reality on that channel, “The Hills” is scripted, didn’t you know that?

I’m not saying the history of rock and roll is going to deliver boffo ratings. Then again, wasn’t VH1 built on “Behind The Music”? Sure, audiences like train wrecks, but even more interesting are true stories, Discovery has a gold mine based on reality. And the Food Network too.

I don’t know if it’s even television, maybe it’s a Website.

But the history of the music business needs to be told. Not with self-congratulatory concerts at Madison Square Garden, celebrating the inane Hall Of Fame, but documentaries on Bill Aucoin, who truly built KISS. And Brian Epstein. And even Irving Azoff and Cliff Burnstein. Hell, people can relate to these individuals even more than the stars. You can see yourself in the role, you love to see the rise and sometimes fall. It’s fascinating.

Meanwhile, I hear there’s a new Carvel on Santa Monica Boulevard…

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