From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Making Mistakes Is Natural

Mistakes are a fact of life. It’s the response to the error that counts.

Nikki Giovanni

Making chocolate-chip cookies made me “Famous.” Losing the company that made my name a household word made me wonder if life would ever be the same again. Despite my missteps in business, I found that my life got better and I got stronger.

Many people who know I started Famous Amos Cookies don’t know I’m finished with Famous Amos. It’s a long story that began in Hollywood but didn’t have a Hollywood ending, and it’s why I say making mistakes is natural.

I started Famous Amos Cookies in March 1975 with a little help from my friends. Others believed it was a risky business. My shop on Sunset Boulevard was the first retail store in the world to sell nothing but chocolate-chip cookies.

Even I was amazed that a forty-year-old amateur cookie maker could achieve such swift success. The first year, I grossed $300,000. I had christened myself “Famous Amos” before I actually became famous, and out of this sweet success was born “the King of Cookies, the Father of the Gourmet Chocolate-Chip Cookie Industry, the Face That Launched a Thousand Chips.”

I have always believed that chocolate-chip cookies are special and magical. Just the thought of chocolate-chip cookies evokes emotional feelings and revives happy, caring, loving and heartfelt memories. Chocolate-chip cookies were a way of life for me before I turned them into a way to make a living. I had used my home-baked chocolate-chip cookies as my calling card in the entertainment business. A bag of free cookies always meant a warm, friendly welcome for me, although it didn’t necessarily mean that my clients got the jobs.

After two years in business, Famous Amos was grossing $1 million. A Time Magazine cover story in 1977 called me one of the “Hot New Rich.” Newsweek called me “the Progenitor of the Upscale Cookie, the Greatest Cookie Salesman Alive.” Of course, I accepted the accolades even if they went too far.

Batch followed aromatic batch. Famous Amos expanded from coast to coast. I was the nut who brought nuts to Nutley, New Jersey, when I opened a Famous Amos bakery there in 1976. It wasn’t long before my bewhiskered brown face was to cookies what the pale-faced Quaker was to oatmeal and the Colonel was to chicken.

I was hotter than a baking pan straight from the oven. It seemed I could do no wrong. In 1979, I made $4 million and in 1980, $5 million. I had more than 150 people working to fill those cute little cookie bags and never-enough cookie tins with three and a half tons of handmade, fresh-baked cookies a day.

Within five years, my face, my trademark battered Panama hat, and my simple embroidered Indian pullover shirt had become known far and wide. In 1980, I donated the hat off my head and the shirt off my back to the Smithsonian Institution as icons of the entrepreneurial spirit that is as American as chocolate-chip cookies. Here was proof that a black high-school dropout from a broken home in Harlem could still make it in this country. For a while it seemed like a cosmic, never-ending experience. But like all sugar-induced highs, it didn’t last.

In 1985, my cookie empire began to crumble. I was promoting it like crazy and having good fun, but I forgot one little thing. I forgot to put a good management team under the flying carpet. The financial side was flying without a navigator, and before long, outside investors had begun chipping away at my stake in Famous Amos Cookies.

I brought in the Bass Brothers from Texas as investors to pump more capital into the company, reducing my stake from 48 percent to 17 percent. The deal didn’t last long, and another group bought out the Bass Brothers. My equity slipped again, and by that point, I was no longer involved in the day-to-day operations.

The new group was losing money and wound up selling out to Bob Baer, the founder of Telecheck, and his two sons. In 1987, the company was in the hands of its third owners in two years. I had no stake in the company by then, but I still had an employment agreement that paid me $225,000 in salary and expenses to promote the company.

In 1988, the Baers sold the company to a venture-capital group based in San Francisco. When that group sought to lessen my salary, I felt unwanted and unwelcome. In my lectures, I advise people to move on if they do not like the people they are working with. Since that’s what I was dishing out to others, it had to be good enough for me. On March 1, 1989, my contract with Famous Amos was terminated, and I left the company I founded with nothing.

To secure my freedom, I signed a “divorce decree” that included a two-year noncompete clause, which expired at the end of 1991. Another agreement, which I had mistakenly thought would expire with the noncompete agreement, gave Famous Amos the rights to my name and likeness in any food-related business.

The company hadn’t failed me. I failed it. The lesson was humbling. I had passed on the name “Famous Amos” to people I had no feelings for. I was no longer “Famous Amos.” To me, “Famous Amos” had been more than just a name. I did not know it at the time, but I was beginning a journey that would help me discover who Wally Amos really is.

After leaving Famous Amos, I launched a career in lecturing, doing for a fee of $5,000 or $7,000 what I had been doing as a spokesperson for the cookie company. I gave inspirational, motivational lectures to colleges, corporations, professional associations and conventions. I also did some consulting. It was bread and butter, but it was never as sweet as flour and sugar and butter with chips of chocolate mixed in.

After the noncompete clause expired, I started a new company, Wally Amos Presents Chip and Cookie. I couldn’t use “Famous Amos,” of course, but I could use Wally Amos, because that’s my name, and I thought it sounded very Walt Disney-ish to say “Wally Amos Presents.”

In December 1991, People magazine asked Hawaii correspondent Stu Glauberman to do a “Where Are They Now?” story about me. The February 1992 story described how I was embarking on Chip and Cookie, the sequel to Famous Amos, and how my fresh-baked cookies and my Chip and Cookie dolls and books and T-shirts were catching on at J.C. Penney stores in Hawaii.

That story attracted a lot of attention—including some at the Famous Amos Cookie Company headquarters. In April 1992, they responded with a lawsuit.

In my book Man with No Name, I recount how the new owners of the Famous Amos Company dragged me into U.S. District Court to try to prevent me from using my name and likeness in any business. I told myself that this was a case I couldn’t possibly lose and that they couldn’t possibly rob me of my name. Once again, my sense of what was right was wrong. The court ruled against me, and the upshot was that I could not use my name or the word “Famous” with the name Amos in connection with any cookie, beverage or restaurant business. I lost the case, my name, and the Chip and Cookie venture. But I did not lose my family, my positive outlook and myself. I learned that you don’t need a name to sell cookies; you need a cookie that tastes good. So I started the Uncle Noname Cookie Company.

In March 1995, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of losing management control of the Famous Amos Cookie Company. Why celebrate these mistakes? Because I’d learned from them. I learned that mistakes usually happen for a reason. I learned that a business needs a skilled, experienced management team. I learned that I should have spent more time doing what I was good at—marketing and promoting and glad-handing—rather than trying to do all the things I wasn’t good at. I also learned how vital it is to be focused and disciplined.

When I was in show business, I sat in on many recording sessions and television tapings. Whenever a performer missed a note or flubbed a line, the producer or director would chat sanely with the artist and/or the backup musicians and roll the tape again. “All right, Take 14, rolling,” the producer might say. It was just a mistake. Why is it that when someone makes a mistake in business or in personal relationships, it’s cause for anger? Humans aren’t perfect—even if they’re singing stars, movie stars or cookie bakers. We all make mistakes. We’re all in a state of training, a state of becoming—becoming a better worker, a better student, a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend or a better person.

I remember the time I caught a worker who had burned a rack with twenty trays of cookies. I settled down and explained to the worker the cost involved in sacrificing twenty trays of cookies on the altar of carelessness. I told the worker to do another take—more carefully. Patience and understanding and sound advice can go a long way in guiding and encouraging employees and friends through their mistakes.

Another thing I’ve learned from my mistakes is that it’s important to work from your strengths. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Focus your time and energy on the things you do best. Leave the rest to the other members of the team.

When all is said and done, mistakes are the process through which we in turn create success. Mistakes create the foundation for our life. That foundation is experience, which in turn creates the light that leads us into our future. That light is called wisdom.

Now things have come full circle. I have launched another cookie company, Aunt Della’s Cookies, named after my aunt, Della Bryant, who first made chocolate-chip cookies for me at age twelve. Life continues to get sweeter and sweeter.

Wally Amos and Stu Glauberman

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