Born: July 1, 1936
Founder, Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie
Wally Amos—entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and author—founded the Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Company in 1975 selling bite-sized homemade chocolate chip cookies. While Famous Amos soon lived up to its name, thriving for nearly a decade, the company's founder lost control of his business. When he sold Famous Amos in 1985, Wally Amos lost more than a company. When the dust settled, he was barred from using his identity or his face to sell cookies. Always the survivor, Amos started a new company in 1992, this time selling freshly baked muffins and cakes. He eventually returned to Famous Amos as a "director of cookie fun," and travels the country lecturing on how to overcome misfortune and concentrate on the positive aspects of life.
"Obituaries always list the year you were born and the year you died, separated by a dash, i.e. 1900-1996. When you were born or when you died is not nearly as important as what you did in between—what you put in that dash. What have you put in your dash?"
Wallace Amos Jr. was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1936, the only child of Wallace and Ruby Amos. His parents divorced when he was twelve, and Amos was sent to live with his Aunt Della in Harlem, New York. Aunt Della loved to cook and bake, and it was she who gave Wally Amos his first chocolate chip cookie. This simple, affectionate act had lasting consequences in the life of the young boy, who eventually went on to make his living from fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.
When his mother and grandmother came to New York, Amos moved in with them in 1951. He enrolled in a trade high school specializing in cooking, and had a job as a cook after school. But Amos became restless and dropped out of school just months before graduation, signing up for the U.S. Air Force in 1953. During his four years in the military, he finished his high school education.
When Amos returned to New York, he studied at a secretarial school and was briefly employed at Saks Fifth Avenue before moving on to the William Morris Agency. Although he was hired to work in the mail room and to do some janitorial work, Amos got noticed by the upper management because he was willing to do things that were not part of his job description. Before long he had worked his way up to secretary for Howard Hausman, an executive vice president at the agency. After Amos discovered two young musicians named Paul Simon (1941-) and Art Garfunkel (1941-) and convinced them to sign with William Morris, he was promoted again and became their agent.
For several years, life was very good for Amos. He had an impressive client list, which included Simon and Garfunkel, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Sam Cooke (1935-1964), Dionne Warwick (1940-), and Diana Ross (1944-). He had also started baking small chocolate chip cookies to give to clients and friends as a way of saying hello or thank you. He brought them to meetings and gatherings, always getting enthusiastic praise.
Although Wally Amos was introduced to chocolate chip cookies by his Aunt Delia and her old-fashioned recipe, when Amos started his own business he used a recipe by Ruth Wakefield, who is credited with inventing chocolate chip cookies at her Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts, in the 1930s. This is also how Toll House brand cookies got their start.
In 1967, Amos decided to leave William Morris and launch his own talent agency. He started in New York, then relocated to Los Angeles, California, nearer the show business capital of Hollywood. Yet Amos grew tired of showbiz and being an agent and by 1974, he was looking for something new. That something was baking cookies.
Amos started baking to console himself, since cookies always made him feel better. In the back of his mind, however, he considered the idea of selling his cookies. Because he had little money, Amos almost abandoned the idea. Instead, he started thinking of ways to promote his business. As a man who had made his living promoting other people as an agent, he used his background to come up with ways to sell cookies. He wrote up a business plan and approached some of his famous friends including singers Helen Reddy (1941-) and Marvin Gaye, who each contributed to his start-up funds. Soon he had $25,000 in financial backing. Amos planned a big party to launch his new business: he hired a band, bought champagne, and invited many of his celebrity friends. The Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Company was officially born in March 1975 at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in Los Angeles.
While the launch of Famous Amos was glitzy, the man behind the glitz worked from dawn to dusk baking and selling his cookies. He had no money to advertise, so he became the new company's showman, passing cookies out on the streets, delivering them to friends, and taking them everywhere he went. As quoted in a Black Enterprise profile from November 1992, Amos said, "I knew I had the best product; all I needed to do was to convince the public of something I already knew."
During its first year in business, Famous Amos had sales of $300,000 and Wally Amos's smiling face became increasingly well known since it was featured on every tin or bag of cookies. By 1977, when Wally moved to Hawaii with his family, Famous Amos had added two baking and manufacturing facilities and additional stores around Los Angeles and its first in Hawaii.
Famous Amos was selling $5 million worth of cookies by 1980, and just two years later sales had rocketed to $12 million. Yet with such phenomenal success came mistakes. Amos began selling shares of the business to outsiders; he also tried to launch new products such as chocolate sodas, which did not work out. In 1983, he wrote his autobiography, The Famous Amos Story: The Face that Launched a Thousand Chips. As Amos celebrated the book's success, his business was losing money. By the time the Bass Brothers of Fort Worth, Texas, came on the scene in 1985, the company founder was in serious financial trouble. Feeling he had little choice, Amos sold his remaining interest in Famous Amos to the Basses for $1.1 million, keeping a small tie to the company as a board member.
In 1986, Amos was given an Entrepreneurial Excellence Award by President Ronald Reagan (1911-) in appreciation of his remarkable American success story. It was a huge honor and one he would never forget; yet it had come, ironically, after Amos had been forced to sell his company. Over the next several years, Famous Amos was bought and sold a number of times. Amos continued writing, publishing his second book in 1988 (The Power in You: Ten Secret Ingredients for Inner Strength) and a third (The Man With No Name: Turn Lemons into Lemonade) in 1994. The later book dealt with Amos's legal battles with Famous Amos, which resulted in Amos being unable to use his name or face to sell any baked products.
In the aftermath of the court cases, Amos abandoned all hopes of baking and selling cookies and sold muffins and cakes under the Uncle Noname label (originally formed in 1992). While it certainly was a comment on the fact that he could not use his own name, Noname actually had a Hawaiian pronunciation, No-nah-may. Under the Uncle Noname label, by 1996 Amos had again scored success with fat-free gourmet sweets.
Famous Amos's distinctive packaging became almost as famous as the cookies themselves: every brown bag featured a smiling Wally Amos, dressed in a straw Panama hat and a decorated white shirt. In 1980, the hat and shirt Wally wore on the early packaging of Famous Amos cookies were placed in the Collection of Advertising History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Amos's fourth book, Watermelon Magic: Seeds of Wisdom, Slices of Life, was published the same year. In this upbeat effort, Amos offered readers plenty of homespun advice and lively chitchat. His title choice, however, raised some eyebrows. Watermelon was a food that had taken on a negative meaning since all African Americans were assumed to be especially fond of it. People wondered why Amos would choose to feature such a stereotype in his title. He did so on purpose, but rather than stir the fires of racial stereotypes, Amos thoughtfully examined the topic of race and bias, along with many others issues he had come into contact with throughout his life.
Famous Amos was bought by Keebler Foods in 1998, which pleased Amos. After years of bouncing from one owner to the next, Famous Amos would be part of a cookie empire with well developed national distribution methods. In addition, Amos believed that the company would return the cookies that bore his name back to their original quality. He was positive that somewhere along the way his recipe had stopped being used. Amos considered the Famous Amos cookies of the 1990s to be cheap knockoffs, which had neither the quality nor the taste of his original cookies.
In 1999, Keebler approached Amos to help promote Famous Amos, and he happily agreed. As Amos told Diane Toops of Food Processing magazine, "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." Marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Famous Amos in 2000, Amos went on the road for Keebler, calling himself a "director of cookie fun."
Keebler also gave Amos another gift: the use of his name and face. He changed Uncle Noname to Uncle Wally's, and published his fifth book, The Cookie Never Crumbles: Inspirational Recipes for Everyday Living, in 2001. By 2002, when Keebler and Famous Amos were bought by the Kellogg Company (see entry), Amos was unconcerned. Kellogg, like Keebler, was a billion-dollar company known for its quality and outstanding products.
Wally Amos, married three times and with three sons and a daughter, lives happily in Hawaii. In 2002, he was traveling the world promoting Uncle Wally's muffins—and himself—since he had become a sought after inspirational speaker earning up to $12,000 per appearance. Perhaps Dennis Kimbro and Napoleon Hill of Black Enterprise said it best when describing Amos: "Some call him a promoter, others say he is a public relations wizard—but neither title adequately describes what he does best. Wally Amos is a salesman who uses flair, hype, and showmanship to convey his message."
Amos, Wally, and Camilla Denton. The Man With No Name: Turn Lemons into Lemonade. Lower Lake, CA: Aslan Publishing, 1994.
Amos, Wally, Eden-Lee Murray, and Neale Donald Walsch. The Cookie Never Crumbles: Inspirational Recipes for Everyday Living. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.
Amos, Wally, and Gregory Amos. The Power in You: Ten Secret Ingredients for Inner Strength. New York: D. I. Fine, 1988.
Amos, Wally, and Leroy Robinson. The Famous Amos Story: The Face That Launched a Thousand Chips. 1983, Reprint. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986.
Amos, Wally, and Stu Glauberman. Watermelon Magic: Seeds of Wisdom, Slices of Life. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing, 1996.
Applegate, Jane. "Spoiled Famous Amos; Now He's the Muffin Man." Washington Business Journal (December 12, 1997): p. 61.
Carlsen, Clifford. "Famous Amos is Back in the Chips." San Francisco Business Times (November 19, 1993): p. 1.
Heuslein, William. "Famous, Shmaymous." Forbes (December 20, 1993): p. 146.
Kimbro, Dennis, and Napoleon Hill. "Profiting Through Self-Reliance." Black Enterprise (November 1992): p. 105.
McCollough, Kathy. "Wally Amos Launches Baked Goods Line Out of Long Island Headquarters." Long Island Business News (October 21, 1996): p. 41.
Pollack, Judann. "Famous Amos Gets its First National Push from Keebler." Advertising Age (March 22, 1999): p. 6.
Toops, Diane. "Crack Reporter Brings Famous Amos to His Knees." Food Processing (June 1999): p. 46.
"Workshop to Feature Famous Amos Founder." Business First, (March 2, 2001): p. A21.
Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Company. [On-line] http://www.famous-amos.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Keebler Company. [On-line] http://www.keebler.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).
Kellogg Company. [On-line] http://www.kelloggs.com (accessed on August 15, 2002).