“Famous Amos”

34: Wallace “Wally” Amos was born in Tallahassee, Florida in 1936. When his parents separated in 1948, he was sent to live with his Aunt Della in Manhattan. She liked to bake chocolate chip cookies as a comfort food, and Wally soon learned to bake his own. Then he began tinkering with his aunt’s recipe.

Wally dropped out of high school, and ended up in the Air Force. After serving four years, he returned to New York, and took whatever jobs he could find. One was as a mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency. He soon worked his way up the ladder, and in 1962, he became their first African American talent agent.

At William Morris, Wally, the high school dropout, became close friends with Tom Wilson, a Harvard-educated record producer. Wilson introduced Wally to a young duo he was working with in the studio: Simon & Garfunkel. Wally was impressed with them, and convinced them to sign with him at William Morris.

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Tom Wilson, with another one of his recording projects, a guy named Bob Dylan

Under the Morris tutelage, Simon & Garfunkel teamed up with Mike Nichols on the soundtrack of his new film, The Graduate. The songs, such as “Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson,” became instant classics, and turned the duo into certified stars.

Meanwhile, Wally was also working with other talented singers, such as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, and the Temptations. By 1967, Wally was ready to strike out on his own. He moved to Los Angeles, and started his own management agency. But as a solo act, his business never really got off the ground.

By 1975, Wally was in serious debt. He decided to go back to something else he knew how to do. He borrowed $25,000 from Marvin Gaye, Helen Reddy, and others, and opened the first “Famous Amos” cookie store.

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The business took off, and within years, it grew into an $80 million enterprise.

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The Famous Amos cookie shop, on Sunset Blvd in L.A., 1976

But Wally was also making some bad decisions, and by 1984, he had to start selling off parts of his company. Within a few years, he had sold out completely, and in the end, he even lost the rights to use his own name or image on any product.

Slowly, Wally rebuilt his career, trying different ventures. Along the way, in 1987, he hosted an adult literacy program on public TV, Learn to Read. In 2014, at the age of 78, he launched a new cookie, The Cookie Kahuna, offering three varieties of handmade, high-quality chip cookies.

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When Wally Amos first started making chocolate chip cookies as a teenager in his Aunt’s kitchen, the cookie was still a relatively new item on the American snack food scene.  We think of chocolate chips cookies as one of the iconic American comfort foods, but from the beginning, chocolate chip cookies were the product of entrepreneurial marketing skills.

Chocolate cookies had been around since at least the late 1800s, but it’s generally agreed that the “chip” part of the equation was invented, or at least made marketable, by Ruth Wakefield, who invented the Toll House cookie in 1938.

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The legend of the Toll House cookie makes it sound as though Wakefield created the cookie almost by accident, but as the popular food historian, Caroline Wyman, has argued, it was no accident at all. Wakefield, who had a college degree in household arts, said in 1974 that she had set out deliberately to create a signature cookie for the diners at the Toll House.

Yes, the Toll House Inn was a real place. Wakefield and her husband, Ken, had taken over the classic colonial (1709) restaurant in 1930.

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The Toll House Inn, Whitman, Massachusetts. It burned down on New Year’s Eve in 1984

Ruth published the cookie recipe in her cookbook, Toll House Tried and True Recipes. The recipe was picked up by Gold Medal Flour’s “Betty Crocker” radio program, which in turn helped make Ruth’s cookbook a best-seller. Meanwhile, Ruth connected with Nestle’s, and struck a deal with them to use her recipe on the back of their chocolate chip packages. It was a good deal for everyone involved. The recipe helped Gold Medal sell flour, Nestle’s sell a lot of chocolate, and the Wakefield’s Toll House Inn became famous, drawing celebrity patrons from across the country.

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A 1942 Nestle’s ad featuring Toll House cookies

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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