Mrs. Fields' Cookies, Inc.
Debra J. Fields was able to market the tasty chocolate chip confection she perfected as a teenager into a multi-million dollar-a-year retail business. By the early 1990s, despite some financial setbacks, Fields had become known as the "cookie queen." The hardworking Fields had retail stores in seven countries and a menu expanding into new areas of food items designed to please an upscale palate.
Debra J. Fields, called Debbi, was born Debra Sivyer, on September 18, 1956, in East Oakland, California. The youngest of five daughters born to a Navy welder and his wife, she was raised in middle-class surroundings. Her parents taught her to work for what she wanted. Fields developed a talent and interest in baking. Starting with the classic 1930s Toll House Cookie recipe on the back of the Nestle's Chocolate Chips bag, Fields began experimenting with the cookie batter through dozens of batches. By the time she was 18, Fields was well known locally for her cookies, which were richer and more doughy than the classic recipe.
After high school, Fields took classes at a community college for two years and worked at a variety of jobs. In 1976 she married Randall Fields, a young financial consultant. Randy would often bring batches of his young wife's cookies into the office and would come home repeating the praise her cookies had received. Even with such glowing praise Fields never contemplated her cookie-baking as more than a hobby, until an episode at a dinner party. Asked by an associate of her husband's what she was going to do with her life, she replied, "Well, I'm trying to get orientated." The associate immediately tossed the intimidated Fields a dictionary and said, "The word is oriented, not orientated. If you can't speak the English language, don't speak at all." Fields went home in tears. While telling Redbook the story she added, "When people asked me what I did, I'd say, 'I'm a housewife' and they'd walk away. I decided right then that I never wanted to feel that way again. Soon after that I started to think about what it was that I loved to do, and I realized I loved to make cookies. Six months later I had a business plan."
With a $50,000 loan from her somewhat skeptical husband, she opened a small gourmet cookie shop in her local downtown food arcade. Called Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery, the store opened on August 13, 1977. By noon hardly a customer had entered the shop, and she began to believe her husband's prediction, that she would not earn $50.00 the first day. Determined, Fields piled a tray with freshly baked cookies and started handing out free samples in the walkway. The food court, busy with lunch-time traffic, provided plenty of takers. After her tray had been emptied and she had returned to her shop, Fields found that she had won over some customers. Going home with $75.00 in sales, she demonstrated that she had the perseverance and resourcefulness to make her business a success.
That small shop in Palo Alto, California has since sparked over 600 stores throughout the world. Fields' other businesses are each named after one of her three daughters: Jenny's for Kids, which sells children's clothes; Jessica's Cookies, a separate cookie company; and a gift shop called Jennessa's. In 1987 she published her autobiography, One Smart Cookie. She has written a number of cookbooks, including Debbi Fields' Great American Desserts in 1996.
From its roots in Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chippery, the Mrs. Fields Cookies retail chain was born in 1977. Its first headquarters was in Palo Alto, although the company would follow Fields and her family to Park City, Utah in 1982. Her determination continued, and Mrs. Fields Cookies retail locations expanded first within the San Francisco Bay area, then throughout California.
Between 1985 and 1988, the company opened 225 new stores. By the late 1980s the chain had grown to include 425 cookie stores across the United States and abroad, with annual retail sales of over $87 million. Fields expanded her product line, adding oatmealraisin, walnut, coconut-macadamia nut, and other cookie combinations, as well as brownies and a frozen cookie treat.
Despite growing numbers of store locations, Fields would continue to retain personal control over all cookie-baking operations. She inspected samples of all ingredients and visited individual stores by rotation, introducing herself to employees and checking to see that her own high standards were being followed. She has closed stores for the day because the cookies sold there were not soft and chewy enough. Fields readily admitted to Inc. magazine. "They have to be perfect. There's no word at Mrs. Fields for 'its good enough.' I'll go in and throw away $600 worth of product. I don't think about what I'm throwing away, I just assume that there's been some reason why the people were not taught what the standards of the company are."
Because of high standards, Fields did not franchise her locations and soon found herself stretched too thin, both physically and financially. The recessionary national economy during the early 1990s also hit the business hard. By 1993 Fields was forced to give up 80 percent of the company to those lenders that had extended her over $94 million toward expansion of the business. Although she remains the company's largest shareholder, she has lowered her profile within company management. Still, qualifications of franchisees have been established with consideration for her exacting standards: potential owners must put in a minimum of three months' steady employment at a current retail outlet, although Fields encourages six months. "You have to be a cookie lover," she told Working Woman.
Fields believes that the interaction between employees and customers is key to any business's success. "When we interview, we put applicants through a three-step test," she told Supermarket News. Applicants are first judged on their reaction to tasting Mrs. Field's cookies. Then they are asked to go out on the street and give cookies away. Those that pass the first two steps are then asked to sing "Happy Birthday" in the middle of the store. "We do that because anybody can sing that, and we want people who would do something as outrageous as singing in front of a bunch of strangers," Fields explained.
Social and Economic Impact
In addition to a good-tasting product, industry analysts credited Fields' overall success to her commitment to quality. She insists on only fresh ingredients and requires that local retailers bake cookies daily. As Fields told an interviewer in Moxie magazine, "The main thing is—if you absolutely know what you're doing is good, it makes it very easy not to compromise and not to give up; because you know you're going to make this world a little bit better."
Fields' unconventional business style, manifested by her close involvement with each of her stores and her view of employees as an extended family, reflects her own high standards and expectations. These standards include a strong element of caring and concern for others, especially her customers. In addition, since her first year of operation, every cookie in each of her stores that was still on the rack after its first two hours out of the oven has been donated to a local charitable organization.
Chronology: Debbi Fields
1970: Developed cookie baking techniques in her family's kitchen.
1977: Opened Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery in Palo Alto, California.
1980: Became president and CEO of Mrs. Fields Cookies.
1982: Moved her family and business to Utah.
1986: Established Mrs. Fields Children's Health Foundation.
1987: Published autobiography, titled One Smart Cookie.
1992: Began franchising existing retail store locations.
1993: Wrote off debt by giving her lenders 80 percent of the company's assets.
1996: Appeared in Public Television series.
Fields took the economic downturn of her business during the early 1990s in stride; she was quoted as telling the Los Angeles Times that cookies would continue to be her life. "I would not give this up for any amount of money." Fields continues to operate as chairman of the board and is an enthusiastic marketer of the retail stores that bear her name. As she told Redbook, "Sometimes the things that are most devastating are the best things for you. I think you learn more from failures than from success."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Mrs. Fields' Cookies, Inc.
333 Main St.
Park City, UT 84060
Business Phone: (801)463-2000
Contemporary Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
Harper, Roseanne. "Mrs. Fields Shares Sweet Sales Secret." Supermarket News, 26 June 1995.
Moxie, August 1990.
Myers, Dee Dee. "The Biggest Career Goof I Ever Made." Redbook, November 1995.
Pogrebin, Robin. "What Went Wrong with Mrs. Fields?"Working Woman, July 1993.
Prendergast, Alan. "Learning to Let Go." Working Woman, January 1992.
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