Amos, Wally 1937–
Wally Amos 1937–
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.” Today Amos is no longer involved with the “Famous Amos” cookies found in most supermarkets and many vending machines, but he has begun a whole new gourmet cookie venture, the Uncle Nonamé Cookie Company. The man who once called himself “the face that launched a thousand chips” told Parade magazine of his new company: “It’s still me—the best Wally Amos I can be.”
Amos’s self-professed love affair with the chocolate chip cookie began in his childhood. He was bom 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 dilligently, 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.
Born July 1, 1937, in Tallahassee, FL; married, wife’s name Christine; four children. Education: Earned high school equivalency.
William Morris Co., New York, NY, 1959–67, began as mail clerk, became executive vice president, talent agent for Simon & Garfunkel, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Dionne Warwick, and Patti LaBelle, among others; entertainment manager, Los Angeles, CA, 1972–75, clients included Franklin Ajaye, Abby Lincoln, and Oscar Brown Jr.; Famous Amos Cookie Corporation, San Francisco, CA, president, 1975–85, vice chairman, 1985–89; Wally Amos Presents… Chip & Cookie, president, 1990–92; Uncle Nonamé Cookie Company, Honolulu, HI president, 1993—. Spokesman for Literacy Volunteers of America; board member, Cities in Schools, Inc. Military service: U.S. Air Force, c. 1955–59.
Selected awards: Presidential Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence, U.S. president Ronald Reagan, 1986; Horatio Alger Association citation, 1987.
Address: Office —c/o Uncle Nonamé Cookie Company, 984252 Pupuole St., Waipahu, HI 96797.
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 Nonamé (pronounced No-NAHH-may) Cookie Company specializes in five varieties of gourmet cookies. This time, having learned from his previous business errors, Amos has employed a professional management team to run the dollars-and-cents end of the company. In its first month of business, Nonamé reported $33,000 in sales. As a marketing hook, each bag of Uncle Nonamé cookies carries 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.”
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 precent of pretax profits of Uncle Nonamé 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.”
Ebony, September 1979, pp. 54–8; May 1983, p. 53.
Forbes, March 10, 1986, pp. 176–78; December 20, 1993, pp. 146–47.
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
"Amos, Wally 1937–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/amos-wally-1937
"Amos, Wally 1937–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/amos-wally-1937
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?"
Chocolate Chips Equal Love
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.
Taking a Chance
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.
Big Money and Big Trouble
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.
How the Cookie Crumbled
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."
For More Information
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).
"Amos, Wally." Leading American Businesses. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/trade-magazines/amos-wally
"Amos, Wally." Leading American Businesses. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/trade-magazines/amos-wally