When Wally Amos founded Famous Amos cookies in 1975, the brand became one of the most unlikely success stories in food history. And the rise and fall of Wally Amos became one of its most infamous cautionary tales. Here’s how a man who broke the color barrier in the talent industry and launched a cookie empire helped change American tastes.
Who Is Famous Amos?
Wally Amos, Jr. was born in Florida in 1936. He moved to New York City’s Harlem at age 12 to live with his Aunt Della. Amos dropped out of high school, but earned his G.E.D. while serving in the Air Force. In 1957, he returned to New York and joined the William Morris Agency, where he worked his way up from the mailroom to become the first black talent agent in the industry. Amos headed the rock ’n’ roll department, where he signed Simon and Garfunkel and worked with Motown megastars The Supremes, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke and Dionne Warwick.
When a new job opportunity in Los Angeles backfired, Amos grew disillusioned with show business. He began baking cookies using his Aunt Della’s recipe. “Cookies were a hobby to relieve stress,” says his son Shawn Amos, musician and author of Cookies & Milk. Hollywood tastemakers began to take notice: “I'd go to meetings with record company or movie people and bring along some cookies, and pretty soon everybody was asking for them,” Amos told The New York Times in 1975.
WATCH: Full episodes of The Food That Built America online now. New episodes premiere Sundays at 9/8c on HISTORY.
Wally Amos Launches Famous Amos in 1975
That year, Amos launched the first Famous Amos store on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard. It was an unlikely place to sell cookies: “The East side of Sunset was seedy,” Shawn says. “There were prostitutes. We were across the street from a strip joint. We were held up a couple of times. But a few blocks down was the A&M Records loft, where Dad had offices next to Quincy Jones. He saw something. He felt that what he was doing would transcend the neighborhood.”
Amos was newly divorced, so his time at the shop was his time with his son. “I stood on milk crates to ring up customers,” Shawn says. “I worked the front; Dad worked the back.” They sold three kinds of cookies by the pound: chocolate chip peanut butter, chocolate chip with pecan and a butterscotch chip with pecan.
The Famous Amos brand got backing from celebrity investors like Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy, who gave Amos $25,000 toward his new business. The grand opening was a star-studded gala attended by 1,500 people, though “Famous Amos” was the real star of the brand, appearing on packaging and merchandise in his signature straw hat and embroidered cotton shirt. Success came swiftly: The Famous Amos Cookie Company sold $300,000 worth of cookies its first year and was making $12 million in revenue by 1982. In Wally’s own words, his was “the face that launched a thousand chips.”
An Unlikely Success Story
“The concept of a zero-preservative, craft-made cookie was uncommon,” says Jesse Szewczyk, author of Cookies: The New Classics. In an age of mass production, Amos set his sights on something more upscale than the local supermarket, distributing his cookies in Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. Amos even appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade from 1977 to 1981. “Amos elevated a product that was seen as an everyday item into a gourmet experience, says Szewczyk.
Keeping the “famous” in “Famous Amos,” the entrepreneur made guest appearances on hit TV shows like “The Jeffersons” and “Taxi.” Amos held a holiday block party where celebrity guests included Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali. “Food is part of pop culture, much like fashion,” Szewczyk says.
Launching the first premium chocolate chip cookie led to competition, and the rise of brands like Mrs. Fields’ Original Cookies and upmarket product lines from Duncan Hines and Nabisco began biting into Amos’s market share.
Recommended for you
It All Comes Crumbling Down
Amos struggled to keep up with the brand’s rapid growth. By 1985, Famous Amos reported a $300,000 loss on sales of $10 million. “He wasn’t a businessman. He was an amazing marketer and had great promotional instincts. But he made a lot of bad decisions,” his son says.
Amos continued to raise money while diluting his own equity. At one point, he lost his home. In 1985, Amos sold a majority stake to Bass Brothers Enterprises for $1.1 million. “He sold it to save it,” Shawn says. “He’s always been impulsive. A lot of entrepreneurs are. That same spark that can drive you to take a chance prevents you from listening to others. You think you’re infallible.”
Two sales later, the new owners added shelf-stable ingredients and repositioned the cookies as an affordable brand, prompting its famous founder to depart. In 1992, President Baking Company bought Famous Amos for $61 million—more than 55 times what Wally Amos sold his controlling stake for just a few years earlier.
READ MORE: The Surprising Origin of the Fortune Cookie
What Happened to Wally Amos?
That year, Wally Amos launched Wally Amos Presents hazelnut cookies. He was promptly sued for trademark infringement and forbidden from using his own name and likeness. He recalled: “I was stupid, plain and simple. I sold the company and didn't realize I had sold my future along with it.” Undeterred, he changed the brand’s name to Uncle Nonamé. It filed for bankruptcy in 1996.
In 1999, Amos signed a deal with the new owner of Famous Amos, Keebler, to act as spokesperson. He said yes on the condition that they craft the recipe closer to the original. “It was bittersweet,” says his son. “He was happy to be back in the center of the brand he started, but he also had a hard time accepting the fact that at the end of the day, he was just a paid spokesperson.”
Amos soon left again—this time for good. He pivoted to muffins with Uncle Wally's Muffin Co. and opened a bake shop in Hawai'i. Amos wrote multiple books about his experiences, including Man With No Name: Turn Lemons into Lemonade, The Famous Amos Story: The Face That Launched 1,000 Chips and The Power In You. A tireless advocate for literacy, he was granted a National Literacy Honors Award by President George H.W. Bush. “As a high school dropout, education was a big deal to him,” Shawn says.
Ever the entrepreneur, Amos appeared on “Shark Tank” at age 80 pitching “The Cookie Kahuna,” a business that eventually failed. In 2017, he launched a GoFundMe announcing he was struggling to pay for food, gas and rent. Yet his legacy as a barrier-breaking entrepreneur remains. “He’s a perennial hustler,” says Shawn. “Everyone wants the great comeback. It’s a story as old as time itself.”