Carvel has been around for nine decades, but the past couple of years have been some of the most important in brand history. It was during this recent period the classic ice cream concept began developing a design refresh to breathe new life into its business.

Carvel chief brand officer Jim Salerno—a 26-year veteran of the chain—credits the initiation of this brainstorming process to GoTo Foods specialty category president Kristen Hartman, who previously served as president of Carvel and Cinnabon. Stores in place for 50 to 60 years do wonders for brand equity and cult-like following, but it also makes them susceptible to noticeable wear and tear. Hartman quickly identified upgrades were necessary to open doors for further growth opportunities.

The roughly 325-unit company proceeded to hire an outside firm to help with research around guests’ perception of locations and what they’re looking for. It also sought to understand what competitors were doing, not just in the ice cream segment, but the industry overall. The most important conclusion was that Carvel’s advantage continues to be its soft-serve ice cream, which it pioneered 90 years ago.

The new store design features an updated logo, modernized layout, brighter color scheme, and nods to the chain’s reputation as the Original Soft Serve. Operationally, the prototype includes simplified, digital menuboards along the side wall instead of behind the counter to improve customer flow, and a freezer near the main counter filled with grab-and-go treats.

“We’re a big believer that every fountain customer that comes in, they have the potential to be a cake customer,” Salerno says. “So we want to make sure that they see our products. And every cake customer that comes in has the potential to be a fountain customer. So we do our own marketing within our shops with our guests depending on what they’re purchasing.”

Two stores in Gainesville, Florida, and Queens, New York, have opened with the upgraded features. The prototype can accommodate 900 to 2,000 square feet as part of endcaps, in-lines, or urban streetside units.

“Because soft serve is truly what we do best and what we are as a brand, we wanted to both make sure that the design refresh may call that out and make sure our guests were aware of it,” Salerno says. “So the whole thing came together by a combination of research and telling us what our guests feel about the brand, realizing that we are a 90-year-old brand that could always use some refresh and taking advantage of that to both focus on the soft serve and bring a better guest experience when they walk in our shops.”

The standard vanilla and chocolate machines are now complemented by a machine for Carvel’s new Oatly non-dairy soft serve, introduced this year. Additionally, a multi-flavor machine can offer up to nine different soft-serve flavors. That’s about a dozen flavors in three machines; it used to take Carvel five or six pieces of equipment to achieve that variety.

Originally, Carvel shops were designed as mini manufacturing plants where everything was made onsite from a mix. This layout was convenient for operators, with production machines next to freezers and display cases. However, this setup didn’t always create the best guest experience, as customers often found the sight of numerous machines and freezers unappealing. Carvel’s new design emphasizes the soft-serve experience. Its Gainesville location features three prominently displayed soft-serve machines, each shrouded and accompanied by local messages like “Stay Fresh with Gainesville, Florida.” This approach reinforces Carvel’s identity as a franchise and a local ice cream shop.

Carvel’s Gainesville location—which has the full-blown design package—is serving as the initial test site and allowing for real-time adjustments. The Queens location, which has a smaller footprint, integrated as many elements of the new design as possible. While not every shop will have all enhancements due to constraints, each will feature core components essential for elevating the guest experience.

Although Gainesville opened in early May, the franchisee is collaborating closely with Carvel’s design and construction team to determine final costs. Expenses will vary based on specific circumstances such as size and location, but preliminary observations suggest the prototype is not significantly more expensive than previous designs. Salerno describes the cost as neutral because of the reduction in machines, which are between $25,000 to $35,000 each. Moving forward, the company will use value engineering for further optimization.

“Our goal was to keep this cost neutral,” Salerno says. “And we believe it is. And I say that knowing that buildouts across the industry have gone up significantly since COVID between cost of supplies and just general cost inflation. But we are also making sure that we’re working on the top-line sales so that shops get a good return on their investment as quickly as possible. We don’t have the full cost yet, but we expect them to come in around neutral.”

Carvel will implement its refreshed design across new stores, including co-brand units. The next to showcase the full upgrade will open in Fort Myers, Florida, later this year followed by another in Pelham, New York. Additionally, Carvel will initiate a remodel program for existing shops, ensuring that those due for a makeover, or franchisees who voluntarily opt for the upgrade, will adopt the new look. The end goal is to make it the standard across the footprint.

Salerno says the refresh aims to progress the brand without completely overhauling its established identity. Unlike some concepts that take on a total transformation in appearance and color schemes, Carvel chose to build upon its existing legacy and history. The updated logo is a modernized variation of previous ones, reinforcing the chain’s brand presence while making it clear the company is synonymous with ice cream, especially soft serve.

“We take it very seriously to make sure that we honor [founder Tom Carvel’s] legacy and keep this brand going to 100 years and beyond,” Salerno says. “So by doing that, we do have to focus on keeping our existing guests happy and satisfied, but by continuing to gain new guests as well as grow the brand. We want to make sure that we’re growing locations and we believe that this new design is a perfect reason for people to re-look at Carvel, and reinvest in and grow with the brand.”

Fast Food, Franchising, Growth, Story, Web Exclusives, Carvel