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How Carvel’s Fudgie the Whale became a Father’s Day icon

By Jordan Valinsky, CNN

New York (CNN) — Whiskey, steaks and ties are all typical gifts for Father’s Day, but one specifically made for the holiday takes the cake: Fudgie the Whale.

Carvel’s vanilla and chocolate-flavored ice cream cake has been a holiday staple since 1977, when it it was first created as a Father’s Day promotion, and nearly five decades later, it has earned its place in the pantheon of recognizable fast food characters.

Fudgie the Whale wasn’t initially produced to be a mascot for the 90-year-old brand. It was made to fill the freezer cases that founder Tom Carvel had made for his shops. Ice cream cakes quickly flew off the shelves, first created in the mid-1950s, and twenty years later he thought of making a cake for Father’s Day.

Fudgie was a play on the phrase (more commonly said back then): a “whale of a dad,” according to Carvel’s Chief Brand Officer Jim Salerno, which prompted Carvel to mass produce Fudgie using a plastic, whale-shaped mold that he invented. He decided to top it with fudge, because it was one of Carvel’s most popular toppings.

To make the cake, soft-serve vanilla is placed into the mold first, followed by chocolate chip cookie pieces better known as “crunchies.” Then it’s topped with soft-serve chocolate ice cream and frozen for several hours. After that, it’s topped with hot fudge with more crunchies on the side. The cakes sell for about $30.

Fudgie helped Father’s Day become Carvel’s busiest day of the year for buying cakes, Salerno said.

“The simple reason is when you ask dad what they want to do on Father’s Day is that they want to stay home, like watch TV or have a barbecue. It’s a big holiday to bring cake home,” Salerno told CNN.

Fudgie’s popularity extends beyond Father’s Day, Salerno said, popular for other occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, too. Carvel sells nearly 100,000 Fudgies a year.

Fudgie is also part of fading piece of fast food culture, as mascots have largely become a thing of the past. They have been “successful in reaching kids and families with a memorable character that could then recreate some nostalgia and a fondness for the food and the memories of that chain,” said David Henkes, a senior principal at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm.

Carvel could use a boost. Its footprint has deceased in recent years and sales lag behind its competitors like Dairy Queen and Baskin Robbins, according to the firm’s data. Carvel is owned by privately held Go To Foods (f.k.a. Focus Brands) that also has Auntie Anne’s, Jamba and Cinnabon in its portfolio.

“For Carvel, Fudgie the Whale cakes evoke those same memories and nostalgia for consumers those that are from the East Coast, and for a relatively small regional chain Fudgie has worked its way into pop culture and probably helps keep Carvel more top of mind for consumers,” he told CNN.

Sibling rivalry

Although Fudgie is Carvel’s most famous treat, it has a little known sibling rivalry with Cookie Puss — a goofy looking alien with a sugar cone as a nose. That was actually Carvel’s first shaped cake, created about five years before Fudgie, to complement the chain’s ice cream sandwiches, known as Flying Saucers.

“It’s supposed to be an extra-terrestrial, but some people say that they kind of fashioned it to look like Tom because it has a nice big nose, big eyes and big ears,” Salerno teased. “But when Fudgie came along, Fudgie surpassed Cookie Puss very quickly.”

Cookie Puss remains on sale, as well as other shaped cakes like ice cream cones, bunny rabbits for Easter and various sports-themed cakes, like basketball and baseball.

Fudgie’s mold has dual purpose to, Salerno said noting that the late Tom Carvel (he died in 1990) “was very frugal” and turned it sideways to make a Santa Claus cake, which has been on sale for about four decades.

The Fudgie family expanded this year with the introduction of Fudgie Pops, which are mini Fudgie cake pops on a stick. Later this year, Carvel is introducing another new character cake, but Salerno is keeping mum on the shape.

Fudgie fandom

Carvel has about 340 locations, with more than half of them in New York, but Fudgie’s fandom extends beyond the state.

It’s been lovingly joked about on several TV shows including Family Guy, The Office and even The Simpsons. Last October, Kelly Ripa, a big Carvel fan, received a Fudgie cake on her nationally syndicated talk show “Live with Kelly and Mark” for her 53rd birthday.

Fudgie is hard to escape: Fudgie mascot has made appearances at New York Mets’ and Yankees games, he’s appeared in TV commercials and was even made into Fudgie the Beer in 2018 as part of a limited-time promotion.

For Carvel, which is celebrating its 90th year this year with a new logo and refreshed store designs to focus on its soft serve ice cream roots (Carvel claims that its founder has invented that, but others might disagree), Fudgie sparks nostalgia for consumers.

“We as a brand made sure to keep him front and center,” Salerno said. “It’s amazing how well-known and how well loved he is.”

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