Images by John Hook
“I haven’t grown up yet,” says Wally “Famous” Amos. “Growing up has no meaning. Grow up to what? Grown ups are people that stop having fun. They take life too seriously and forget to laugh about it. What’s the point of being serious?”
Wally’s got a good point. He’s got a T-shirt on that says, “Chocolate’s a vegetable!” He’s 77, looks 60, laughs like a 20 year old, and smiles like a newborn babe. Wally’s got the kind of smile that God himself practices in front of the mirror, calling it doing his best “Wally.” And sometimes, even God forgets how much sugar you added to that first flawless batch. But Wally hasn’t. Wally is The Cookie Man. But was he always?
Wally Amos was born in Tallahassee, Florida. If you’re wondering how easy that was for an African American in the 1940’s South, I’ll tell you: He got to New York City by age 12. Quite a change in scenery for a young boy, but it was there where he fell in love, with cookies, of course. His kind Aunt Della, whom Wally lived with at the time, would bake him chocolate chip cookies, a delicacy he was never granted before then. “It was an incredible experience,” says Wally. “Just watching her and realizing that she was baking cookies just for me. The love that she put into a gift like that—a gift that I could taste—just to please me, there was something about that experience that was life changing.”
But the cookie man was still a boy, and would be for another 30 years. After a youth spent shining shoes, he joined the Air Force, then became a manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. When he tired of Saks, he became a gopher in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency. But we talked about Wally’s smile already, so it should come as no surprise that he was promoted to agent in less than a year. He represented the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Helen Reddy, and Simon & Garfunkel. About that time, around 1970, Wally finally started baking his own cookies. He even started using them as a calling card at the agency, the most delicious of icebreakers. Wally’s cookies were so delicious, in fact, that his purpose in life seemed destined to a higher calling. He left the talent agency and opened Famous Amos Cookies in 1975, the first shop in the world to specialize solely in chocolate chip cookies.
His label changed a few times since then (even being forced to sell off the Famous Amos brand due to mismanagement), but that’s merely a footnote; the thrill is never gone for Wally. “Everything about chocolate chip cookies pleases the deepest part of me,” he says beaming. “People have a relationship with chocolate chip cookies more than any other cookie in the world because a chocolate chip cookie represents all the good things in life, like love, kindness, gentleness, feeling good. The chocolate chip cookie embodies those things.”
Sometime along the way, something extraordinary happened. Getting a taste of the islands in his Air Force days, Wally returned to Hawai‘i for good. “There’s nothing like this place,” Wally says. “I love the people, the spirit, the mana, man! There’s that gentleness, that aloha spirit that people here express for one another that you can feel, smell, and taste.” Like cookies. A chain of eight small, blissfully sweet cookies in the middle of a big blue sea.
Since then, he’s co-authored 10 books, served as the National Spokesperson for Literary Volunteers of America, and launched a foundation for child literacy in Hawai‘i called “Read It Loud.” And, of course, he’s kept baking, his newest label called Wamos Cookies. But has the taste changed after all these years? “You can’t fool your mouth,” says Wally with a laugh. “If it tastes good, you’re gonna know it! It’s also the original recipe,” he says, with a glint in his eye.
When Wally bakes cookies, God takes notes. Not to steal his secret recipe or anything, but because that kind of unwavering passion is hard to find. That kind of continual newness Wally has for each day is hard to replicate. Like the perfect cookie; like Wally’s smile.
Find the taste that put a smile on Marvin Gaye’s face at The Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel in Waikīkī or at wamoscookies.com.