For Wally Amos, success has had a very sweet smell, indeed In the 1970s Amos founded the Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Corporation, the very first gourmet cookie business to attract a national following Almost overnight the effervescent Amos became a minor celebrity, both for the quality of his product and his enthusiasm for its promotion A Newsweek correspondent called him the "progenitor of the upscale cookie" and "the greatest cookie salesman alive" Amos's self-professed love affair with the chocolate chip cookie began in his childhood He was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and grew up there until his parents divorced when he was 12 Money was so scarce for him and his family that he often had to walk four miles to and from school to save the bus fare After the breakup of the family, he was sent to live with his Aunt Della in New York City She loved to cook, and she lavished the youngster with her special chocolate chip cookies "I have a fetish for chocolate chip cookies," Amos admitted in Ebony magazine.
"I think it's more than a fetish I think it's bordering on being fanatical" After spending several years in New York City, Amos dropped out of high school to join the US Air Force, where he earned his GED degree Upon discharge from the service, Amos attended secretarial school, learning shorthand, typing, and accounting skills His first job after the military was in the stockroom at Sak's Fifth Avenue He worked diligently, eventually becoming manager of the supply department at the ritzy store He was thus able to support his first wife and two small children.
The affable Amos recalled in Parade that he had numerous obstacles to overcome on his long road to success Growing up poor in the segregated South, he faced adult responsibilities at an early age Still, Amos said, he had confidence that he could make his way in the world "You have to focus on what you can do," he said "There are people who convince themselves that they can't do anything with their lives because of what's happened to them--and they're right They can't But the reason is that they've told themselves they can't They've said 'I am a victim Somebody did something to me that paralyzed me for life' If you believe that, you'll never move forward".
In the early 1960s Amos took a job in the mail room at the William Morris Talent Agency His good nature and solid work habits soon helped him to advance, and he was eventually named the company's first black agent Part of his responsibilities included booking acts such as the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Bobby Goldsboro, and he is even given credit for signing a then-unknown duo named Simon & Garfunkel In 1967 Amos decided to leave William Morris to manage the career of South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela Amos uprooted his second wife and newborn son and moved to California--and then Masakela dropped him "It was the low point of my life," Amos recalled in Ebony Still trying to make it as an entertainment manager, Amos began baking chocolate chip cookies for "therapy," using a recipe similar to his Aunt Della's He would take the cookies to business meetings and to parties, where friends would clamor for them and urge him to sell them The idea seemed far-fetched, but by 1974, Amos had grown completely disillusioned with the entertainment business He decided to take a chance with his cookies.
"I got tired of not making any money and constantly giving all my energy to someone else," he recalled in Ebony "I realized that I could still be in the same situation 10 years from then" Amos borrowed $25,000 from Marvin Gaye, Helen Reddy and her husband Jeff Wald, and United Artists Records president Artie Mogull He opened a small shop on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California, and began making mass quantities with the same recipe he'd used in his own kitchen The Famous Amos Cookie Company was born Amos told Newsweek that when he saw his completed storefront, he was overjoyed "I was about to get out of the car when I saw, for the first time, the logo on the side of the building: THE ORIGINAL HOME OF THE FAMOUS AMOS CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE It seemed to be shining as if neon paint had been used Or it was God lighting up my life at that moment" The shop was the first of its kind dedicated to one brand of gourmet cookies, and Amos pitched his product with an unquenchable enthusiasm.
"Famous Amos" was seen in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade every year from 1977 to 1981, as well as on the label of each cookie bag His treats--baked at locations in Nutley, New Jersey, and Van Nuys, California--were sold in chic department stores and at several outlets in the nation's bigger cities Film and television stars, pop singers, and politicians all professed a craving for Famous Amos cookies Profits increased Within two years the company was producing six tons of cookies each week, and Amos's little venture had become a business generating in excess of $4 million in sales per year Financial backer Jeff Wald told Time magazine: "We invested in [Famous Amos] for love, but as it turns out, it will probably be a better investment than any we ever made It could be worth a few million in a couple of years" Amos had finally found a superstar worthy of his management--his own gourmet cookies By 1980 Amos's trademark Panama hat and shirt were inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's Collection of Business Americana In 1986 Amos was named recipient of one of president Ronald Reagan's first "Awards for Entrepreneurial Excellence".
Having made millions with his gourmet cookies, Amos seemed to be riding high--he bought a beautiful home in Hawaii and spent untold nights flying across the country promoting his cookies Amos told Ebony: "I began to have enormous success when I started doing things to do them well I wanted to do something that really had quality I wanted to be excellent" Unfortunately, Amos's business acumen did not prove equal to the task of keeping up with a multi-million dollar enterprise By 1985, on sales of $10 million, the Famous Amos Cookie Company reported a $300,000 loss "Reality was starting to catch up," wrote Michael Ryan in Parade.
"Though his cookies were popular and his name was respected, Amos was feeling a cash-flow pinch The day-to-day operations of the company required more money than it could generate" Faced with the prospect of losing his business, Amos sold the controlling share to the Bass Brothers of Fort Worth, Texas for $11 million Amos remained on the company's board as vice-chairman, but he became increasingly dismayed as the venture was sold to one investment group after another His responsibilities were diminished to the point that he became no more than a spokesperson for the brand name In 1989, yet another group of investors dismissed Amos from the company he had founded "My heart left the company in 1985," Amos told Forbes Without its founder, the Famous Amos Cookie Company went in a new direction--it stopped producing upscale cookies in competition with gourmet brands and instead went down-market to compete with standard, grocery store cookies Famous Amos cookies began to be found in vending machines and in warehouse food clubs; the treats were marketed to people who had heard of the products but never had bought them.
Ironically, Amos's tireless promotion of his cookies helped to fuel sales of them long after he left the company--even when he suggested that they were no longer made from his recipe The cruelest blow of all fell in the early 1990s, when the cookie man was struggling to keep his home from foreclosure Having launched a modest cookie-making venture in Hawaii, Amos was legally forbidden to use his own name, the "Famous Amos" tag, or his likeness, to describe any of his future endeavors The legal order came from the owners of the Famous Amos Cookie Company "They were saying I didn't even have the right to my own name, " Amos said in Parade "It took me a while to work through that" Amos drew upon his religious faith and his inherent optimism to overcome this most humiliating setback In 1992, from his base in Hawaii, he launched a new business The Uncle Noname (pronounced No-NAHH-may) Cookie Company specialized in five varieties of gourmet cookies This time, having learned from his previous business errors, Amos employed a professional management team to run the dollars-and-cents end of the company.
In its first month of business, Noname reported $33,000 in sales As a marketing hook, each bag of Uncle Noname cookies carried a recipe for lemonade "It's part of my philosophy," Amos explained in Parade "I want to tell people that if life hands them a lemon, they can turn it into lemonade" He added: "There's a lot of wisdom and spirituality in these cookies" Trading in his chips, Amos began selling fat-free and sugar-free muffins under the Uncle Noname brand by 1996 and, also that year, churned out a new book, Watermelon Magic: Seeds of Wisdom, Slices of Life His upbeat attitude did not protect the company from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1997, but he and president Lou Avignone kept the faith Meanwhile, Keebler acquired Famous Amos in 1998, becoming the fifth owner since Amos originally let it go The next year, 1999, Keebler extended an offer, asking Amos to promote his former brand in exchange for an undisclosed salary and, in addition, letting him use his own name and likeness on his new products After asking them to alter their recipe to improve the quality, he agreed.
And so, ten years after leaving Famous Amos, Wally Amos had rejoined the company that bears his name Amos told Diane Troops of Food processing magazine in 1999, "It took me a while to catch up with my name I'm happy to be back, and the people at Keebler are wonderful folks I'm especially glad that Famous Amos Cookies are now in the hands of people who love, live and breathe great-tasting cookies" Indeed, all the chips seemed to be falling in place for Amos and his cookie In 1999, Famous Amos reported that their chocolate chip segment was up by 7 percent And plans for 2000 included the introduction of national in-store distribution, new packaging graphics, and two new flavors Under the deal with Keebler, Amos was to show up at airports, supermarkets, and trade shows to push Famous Amos cookies He started calling his muffin brand name Uncle Wally's Since he has no ownership in Famous Amos, he has indicated that Uncle Wally's muffins will remain his main priority, although he conceded to Canedy in the New York Times, "I will always be Famous Amos".
For his part, Amos has become wiser and more spiritual himself The father of four, he continues his work as a spokesperson for Literacy Volunteers of America, and one percent of pretax profits of Uncle Noname cookies are donated to the support of Cities in Schools, a national dropout-prevention program of which he is a member of the board of directors Reflecting on his changing fortunes in Parade, Amos concluded: "When you say 'I will' with conviction, magic begins to happen I was committed to creating a new life for myself Commitment kept moving me on from one point to the next" One aspect of Wally Amos's life remains consistent from one era to the next, however: his dedication to his product "I enjoy making cookies," he told Ebony "There's something very nice about it" Asked about his future in Upscale magazine, Amos grinned and said: "The possibilities are endless".