Wally Amos, above, stood in the doorway of Chip & Cookie with a hot batch of cookies in June in Kailua. Amos, who created the Famous Amos cookie empire three decades ago and eventually lost ownership of the company, now runs a cookie shop there. CLICK FOR LARGE
No longer famous, Wally Amos still bakes
After losing the rights to the company name, Amos keeps cooking up sweets in Kailua
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
. 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.
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 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.
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 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.
"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."