Wally Amos isn’t one to waste a moment of any day. The creator of the popular cookie brands Famous Amos and Chip & Cookie always exudes a passion for whatever he does, whether he is baking cookies, reading to children, giving motivational talks around the world or wearing his trademark watermelon shirts and playing a tune on his ever-present kazoo.
Born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1936, Amos went to live with his Aunt Della in New York at the age of 12. She was the first person to bake him chocolate chip cookies and also instilled in him “a can-do” attitude. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, Amos worked at Saks Fifth Avenue, then the William Morris Talent Agency where he handled top performers such as The Supremes, Simon & Garfunkel and Marvin Gaye. Shortly after, Amos took up a new hobby -- baking chocolate chip cookies. He opened his first Famous Amos store on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood in 1975.
Although Amos would eventually lose control of his company (Kellogg’s now owns it), he kept his baking hand in with Uncle Wally’s Muffins and then five years ago, he and his wife established Chip & Cookie, which is headquartered in Hawaii.
Amos is just as well known for his support of causes such as literacy; he and his wife established Read It Loud!, a foundation to promote reading aloud to children. For his efforts, Amos has received many honors and awards, including the President’s Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence, the Horatio Alger Award, and the National Literacy Honors Award. He is a sought-after inspirational speaker and the author of eight books, among them “The Famous Amos Story: The Face That Launched a Thousand Chips.” Over the years, Amos has acted in a number of network sitcoms and appeared on hundreds of interview shows, news programs, educational programs and TV commercials.
Amos was recently in Japan, looking for business opportunities. It was his first visit here in 24 years and during the visit, he baked 1,500 cookies for an event at the U.S. Embassy and read to children in Gifu.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros samples some cookies while chatting with Amos.
What is Famous Amos’ history in Japan?
I think it was back in 1986 that we entered into a partnership with Sony Plaza to open cookie stores in Ginza and Hiroo. At the time, I also opened stores in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. Much to my surprise, the Malaysia operation is still going great guns, with 60 plus stores in Malaysia. In Japan, unfortunately, we only lasted for about two years. There have been no Famous Amos cookies here at all since then.
Well, I made some mistakes and wound up losing the company completely. Ownership changed hands many times. Kellogg’s owns the brand now. I left in 1998 but I came back to do some public relations, then left again in 2001. I really didn’t fit into the corporate structure.
What did you do then?
About five years ago, I started a new brand called Chip & Cookie in Honolulu where I have been living for 33 years. It is based on two character dolls named Chip & Cookie. My wife Christine created this concept. Besides chocolate chip, we make oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip with pecan cookies, butterscotch chip with pecan cookies, and chocolate chip with macadamia nut cookies.
We have one store in Waikiki and now we are branching out looking where opportunities might be outside the U.S. I want to look at possible business opportunities in Japan, because Japanese tourists buy my cookies in Hawaii all the time and bring them back. Maybe we could start off with a store in Roppongi. I think there are a thousand different places in Tokyo you could open in and have instant success. Costco and supermarket chains are a possibility, too. I can’t say yet who I am going to partner with and how it is going to take shape, but it is going to happen.
What is the secret to making a great cookie?
The best cookies are hand made. First, I chill my batter because it gives the cookies a better texture and nice little rise. I also use 33% semi-sweet chocolate. That’s a huge amount of chocolate, more than the flour content. Then we use pure butter and Watkins pure vanilla extract. But you know, what really separates great cookies from good cookies is the energy and spirit of the company. My goal was never to have a machine-made cookie. It is the feeling I have about chocolate chip cookies that surpasses what anybody else feels. I imagine that is the same way that Colonel Sanders felt about his chicken.
What sort of cookies did you eat as a child?
I can’t ever recall eating cookies in Tallahassee. When I moved to New York to live with Aunt Della in 1948, I never had to eat anybody else’s cookies. She passed away in 1974, the year before I started Famous Amos, but I like to think of her as my secret ingredient. She has been like a guardian angel for me in the cookie business and her spirit is part of what I do.
You also make muffins, right?
Yes, Uncle Wally’s Muffins is a separate company, with headquarters in Long Island, NY. We have a 60,000-square-foot bakery there and sell to all the big guys like Wal-Mart and Costco.
How often do you eat cookies?
Every day. After meals, I always have a desire to have something sweet.
Tell us about your support for literacy?
My wife and I established the Read It Loud! foundation to promote reading to children. I had already been promoting adult literacy since 1979. When we started Chip & Cookie, we decided to use our business to advocate some charity related to children. It’s important for parents to read to their children for at least 10 minutes a day. I want to create a groundswell of awareness of the importance of this because I believe so many positive things will happen. We are launching a national campaign in America this fall.
Do you enjoy giving motivational speeches?
Yes, I do. Just before I came to Japan, I was in Borneo giving a talk at a conference for the Napoleon Hill Foundation. When I went to Gifu, I gave a lecture there for the first time in Japan. It was a great experience.
Is it true that some of your items are in the Smithsonian?
Yes, they have my straw hat and some of my watermelon shirts. But not my kazoo. That goes with me everywhere I go.
For more information on Wally Amos, visit www.chipandcookie.com or www.readitloud.org© Japan Today