February 12, 2007

Famous Amos

And the man behind the brand is...
Wallace Amos

According to Wallace Amos he was sitting in his friend Marvin Gaye's office talking to his secretary while they munched on some of his homemade chocolate chip cookies. At the same time Amos was chewing on his future in the entertainment business. "Why don't we go into business together selling your chocolate chip cookies?" she suggested. And the first celebrity cookies were born.

Wallace Amos was born to illiterate parents in a black ghetto of Tallahassee in 1936. In 1948 his parents divorced and Wallace and his mother went to Orlando where he stayed only a short time before going to live with his aunt in New York City.

Amos worked part-time through school while dodging street gangs. When a school recruiter told him that "cooks make a lot of money" Amos enrolled in Food Trades Vocational High School. He was assigned to the pantry at the Essex House but became discouraged at only making desserts and dropped out of school.

For the first time Amos drifted. He gambled away his aunt's utility payments and lived on the streets. When he finally returned home the 17-year old Amos convinced his aunt to sign papers allowing him to join the Air Corps where he learned to repair radar and radio equipment.

After his tour of duty Amos came back to New York and worked as a stock clerk at Saks while attending the Collegiate Secretarial Institute. Working hard, he was promoted to an executive position at Saks and was sent to New York University to take retailing courses. Amos found math so troublesome he quit rather than try to be a buyer. He was 25 years old.

Amos next landed a job in the mail room at the William Morris Talent Agency and filling in as a substitute secretary. Again he worked hard and was promoted to become the first black agent at William Morris. Amos found success booking musical acts including the Supremes, the Temptations and Simon and Garfunkel.

By 1967 Amos felt burned out and out of touch with the coming of acid rock in the music business. But more importantly he felt he had gone as far as he could go as a black man at William Morris. He left to manage trumpeter Hugh Maskela but the relationship ended quickly. Amos had bounced from one entertainment job to another when he went to see his friend Gaye.

Amos thought it was a terrific idea to sell cookies but he didn't have any money. He turned to his friends in the entertainment industry. Helen Reddy pledged $10,000 if he found other investors. Herb Alpert chipped in $5,000 and Marvin Gaye clinched the venture with another $10,000. The pivotal secretary suggested the name "Famous Amos" and he called his product the "superstar of cookies."

Amos set up shop at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Formosa Avenue,
a most unsavory location. Next door was the Exotica School of Message emblazoned with the sign screaming "Sindy's Nude, Nude, Nude Girls, Girls, Girls." Across the street was the American School of Hypnosis.

Wallace Amos was a natural showman. He donned a white Panama hat and set out to make his store opening a true Hollywood happening. He sent out 2500 invitations. Over 1500 showed up, including many celebrities who sipped champagne and enjoyed a strolling Dixieland band.

He promoted cookies like rock stars. When celebrities enjoyed his cookies he made certain the Los Angeles papers wrote about it. A friend took some cookies to Bloomingdale's in New York and they agreed to carry the "jet-set cookies."
So did Nieman-Marcus. Amos set up a factory in New Jersey to help meet demand.

In 1977 he left Bloomingdale's for the basement at Macy's with the proviso he could appear in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. For four years Amos marched in front of 20 million viewers becoming a media star himself. By 1979 his factories were baking over three tons of homemade cookies every day. His first store was featured on the Grayline Sightseeing Bus Tour of Hollywood.

As the company grew Amos became less involved in the mundane everyday operations. He moved to Hawaii, further removing himself from the demands of the business. He neglected to franchise the stores, owning only eight.
Other competitors bit into the gourmet cookie market and by 1985 Amos
had to sell all but 8% of the company to private investors.

Amos was not troubled by his shift in fortunes. "I started the cookie business just to make a living and that's still all I'm concerned with," he said. Although not running the business he was still a popular spokesman for Famous Amos and an important campaigner for the literacy Volunteers of America. When the Smithsonian Institute displayed a Business Americana Collection they asked for Amos' trademark embroidered shirt and Panama hat. His was the first food company and he was the first black businessman to be represented.

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