The Secret History Behind Carvel’s Flying Saucers

flying saucers

Photo courtesy of Carvel

Like its savory cousin, the ice cream sandwich is not without contradiction. Or controversy. Once defined as ice cream that’s ‘sandwiched’ between two biscuits, wafers, or cookies, today the frozen treats come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and levels of portability. It is not uncommon to see waffles, donuts, brownies, cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, funnel cakes, churros, or even weaved bacon, bookending scoops of vanilla, chocolate, and the like.)

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Maybe that’s why I was surprised when I had my last ice cream sandwich. It was a Carvel classic, two chewy brown wafer rounds sandwiching a layer of smooth soft-serve, from the brand’s “Flying Saucer” line. In the intervening years since my last, I’ve had good quality ice creams nestled between all sorts of baked goods. When you bite down on the scallop-edged cookies, the distinctive chew is firm yet forgiving, giving way to chocolate ice cream. The Flying Saucer was even better than I remembered.

Depending on whom you ask or what you read, Tom Carvel invented soft-serve ice cream, franchising, several marketing concepts, including “Buy One, Get One Free,” and round ice cream sandwiches. As one article featured in the March 1954 The Ice Cream Trade Journal noted, Carvel’s Flying Saucer is “the first round ice cream sandwich to be marketed in the modern history of the ice cream business.” While not inaccurate, some might call that claim “fluffy” or worse.

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The first ice cream sandwich, full stop–vanilla ice cream pressed between two thin graham wafers–made headlines in 1899 when the New York Mail and Express ran a story about the “new” sandwich, notes Jeri Quinzio, author of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making. The treat was revolutionary and rectangular.

Decades later (and decades earlier than Carvel), a man by the name of George Whitney decided to sandwich a scoop of ice cream between two oatmeal cookies. (They were round.) He dipped them in chocolate and sold them at his hot dog and ice cream stand at the now closed, Playland-at-the-Beach in San Francisco. The year was 1928.

It wasn’t until 1951, that Carvel introduced the Flying Saucer, a round ice cream sandwich made with vanilla soft-serve ice cream and chocolate wafers sourced from the Empire Biscuit Co., in Brooklyn, NY. (The wafers are now manufactured by Interbake.) But, ambiguity has never been a problem for the ice cream icon.

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Even the name Flying Saucer, which Carvel trademarked along with the slogan “Carvel Flying Saucer, they’re out of this world,” isn’t entirely ownable. In 1948, a year after the first widely reported UFO sighting in the United States led the media to coin the term flying saucer, west-coast entrepreneur, Fred Morrison launched an inedible Flyin’ Saucer. We know it today as the frisbee. While Lauren Bernath, Sr. Social Media & Public Relations Manager at Carvel, credits the inspiration for the Flying Saucer to the space boom and general enthusiasm around space exploration, she couldn’t provide more detail around the product or the name’s inception.

In true Carvel fashion, he wasn’t the only one–or the first–to capitalize on the otherworldly inspiration. But he might have been the best. He masterfully built notoriety around the product and the Carvel brand by creating a number of spinoffs (both edible and promotional), including Deluxe Flying Saucers, comic books, frisbees (!!!), and a “Miss Flying Saucer” pageant. Even the “crunchies” in Carvel ice cream cakes sold in-store are made with crumbled Flying Saucer cookies.

In the end, he held over 300 patents, trademarks, and copyrights, and built the nation’s third-largest ice cream store, behind only Dairy Queen and Haagen-Dazs. (At its peak, there were more than 700 shops nationwide. There are 316 currently.) He sold his company shortly before he passed away in 1990.

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Today, the brand is trying to balance its roots with staying relevant. This summer, Carvel celebrated its 85th birthday and launched something called Carvel Boss Shakes, which according to the website is a “unique spin on the irresistible, crazy creations affectionately known as ‘Freakshakes.’” They have names like Unicorn Fairy Dust and Choco-Peanut-Butter-Cookie-Dough-Aholic and, while I’m not saying I wouldn’t try something swirled with chocolate, peanut butter, and cookie dough, it’s no Flying Saucer.

When asked about innovations to the Flying Saucer, Bernath assured me, “Not touching the Flying Saucer in the foreseeable future. Never say never, but you know, we want, we always try to honor the true classics of the brand.” Good.