Wally Amos will always be famous, even though he can’t call himself that anymore.
The man who created the Famous Amos cookie empire three decades ago and eventually lost ownership of the company — as well as the rights to use the catchy name — is now running a modest cookie shop in Hawaii.
But he’s hardly struggling. In addition to being proprietor of Chip & Cookie in Kailua, the former cookie king is now a muffin mogul.
Amos, who turned 71 this month, is co-founder and shareholder of Uncle Wally’s Muffin Co., whose products are found in 5,000 stores nationwide, including Costco and Wal-Mart. The company, based in Shirley, N.Y., expects to produce 250 million muffins this year and 1 billion muffins annually by 2010.
Amos no longer sports a beard or his iconic Panama hat, now displayed in a Smithsonian museum. But his trademark smile, optimistic outlook and uncanny ability to promote remain unchanged.
Actually, Amos says, fame never really mattered much to him.
“Being famous is highly overrated anyway,” said Amos, who has lived in Hawaii since 1977.
Uncle Wally’s Muffin Co. was originally founded as Uncle Noname Cookie Co. in 1992, a few years after Amos lost Famous Amos. Uncle Noname, however, foundered because of debt and problems with its contracted manufacturers.
Some cookies were too small. Others were too big. Some bags contained no cookies at all.
The company filed for bankruptcy in 1996, abandoned cookies and went into muffins at the suggestion of Amos’ business partner, Lou Avignone. Amos said he told him: “I’m a cookie man, but if you can make a good muffin, I can sell it. If I can eat it, I can sell it.”
This time, the company produces its own fat-free muffins and will soon offer take-home cupcake kits.
“Muffins were really our savior,” said Avignone, company president and chief executive.
While Famous Amos still widely uses Amos’ name and image on its products, Uncle Wally’s challenge is to let people know that the man behind the muffins is Amos.
“We realize the value in Wally Amos as a brand, and our goal is to let the public know that Uncle Wally is Wally Amos,” Amos said.
While muffins may be on his mind, Amos couldn’t entirely leave the cookie business. His cookie shop, Chip & Cookie, is a couple of miles from his home in the oceanside community of Kailua.
The store sells five varieties of bite-sized cookies for $9.89 a pound, similar to the ones he first sold at the Famous Amos store in Hollywood 30 years ago.
Amos said the Famous Amos cookies sold today by Kellogg Co. are unlike his cookies, which had lots of chocolate, real butter and pure vanilla extract.
“You can’t compare a machine-made cookie with handmade cookie. It’s like comparing a Rolls Royce with a Volkswagen,” he said.
Kellogg spokeswoman Kris Charles said the company has not significantly changed the original recipe when it acquired Famous Amos in 2001, as part of Keebler. However, Famous Amos was previously owned by several other companies, she said.
“We are very proud of our Famous Amos cookies and believe we’re producing high-quality, great-tasting product,” she said.
Charles wouldn’t disclose revenues for Famous Amos, but noted it was the company’s fastest-growing cookie brand.
Amos’ fragrant store is as much about reading as it is about cookies. At one side is a reading room with dozens of donated books and Amos usually spends Saturdays sitting on a rocking chair, wearing a watermelon hop hat, reading to children.
Besides cookies and muffins, promoting literacy is his passion.
The former high school dropout has penned eight books, served as spokesman for Literacy Volunteers of America for 24 years and now gives motivational talks to corporations, universities and other groups. His speaking fee runs $10,000 to $20,000, according to a booking agency’s Web site.
Amos has earned numerous honors for his volunteerism, including the Literacy Award presented by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. “Your greatest contribution to your country is not your signature straw hat in the Smithsonian, but the people you have inspired to learn to read,” Bush said.
Amos said he’s always been in business to make friends, not to sell treats.
“If you respect your customers as friends, they will respect you and support you in good times and bad times,” he said. “And I guarantee, you’ll experience both.”
In his book, “Man With No Name: Turn Lemons Into Lemonade,” Amos explains how he lost Famous Amos even before it was sold it off for $63 million to a Taiwanese company in 1991.
Despite robust sales, by 1985, the business was losing money, so Amos brought in outside investors.
“The new owners gobbled up more of my share until all of a sudden I found I had lost all ownership in the company I founded,” Amos wrote. Before long, the company had changed ownership four times.
Amos acknowledges making “some really bad decisions,” such as being too controlling and not listening to others who were advising him to do things differently.
Amos said he has since learned how much greater the success can be with a good team.
“Having your face or company named after you, you can’t take that to the bank. You need a team,” he said. “I’m a promoter — I’m not a business guy. I’m not a production guy. I’m not a purchasing guy.”
Born in Tallahassee, Fla., Amos moved to New York City at age 12 because of his parents’ divorce. He lived with an aunt, Della Bryant, who taught him how to make chocolate chip cookies.
He later dropped out of high school to join the Air Force before working as a mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency, where he became a talent agent, working with The Supremes, Simon & Garfunkel and Marvin Gaye before borrowing $25,000 to launch his cookie business.
Cookies made him famous, but Amos has his own take: “I want to be known as a guy who cared about people. A guy who loved people and loved life.”