Wally Amos of Famous Amos Cookies

Wally Amos of Famous Amos Cookies

Personal Information:
Born July 1, 1937, in Tallahassee, FL; married, wife’s name Christine; four children.
Education: Earned high school equivalency.
Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Air Force, c. 1955-59.

Life’s Work:
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 U.S. Air Force, where he earned his G.E.D. 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 $1.1 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."

Awards

Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, 1986; Horatio Alger Association citation, 1987.

Further Reading

  • Ebony, September 1979, pp. 54-8; May 1983, p. 53.
  • Food Processing, June 1999, p. 46.
  • Forbes, March 10, 1986, pp. 176-78; December 20, 1993, pp. 146-47.
  • Kansas City Star (MO), February 19, 2000.
  • Newsweek, November 14, 1983, pp. 16-17.
  • Parade, May 22, 1994, p. 4-7.
  • People, February 17, 1992, p. 101.
  • Time, June 13, 1977, p. 76.
  • Upscale, June/July 1993, p. 116.

— Anne Janette Johnson

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