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Amos Seeks Fame with Muffins

from the Los Angeles Times
By Jaymes Song, The Associated Press
July 13, 2007

KAILUA, HAWAII — 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 said, 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 protection 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.

Although 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.

Although 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 seaside community of Kailua on Oahu.

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. were unlike his cookies, which had lots of chocolate, real butter and pure vanilla extract.

Kellogg spokeswoman Kris Charles said the company had not significantly changed the original recipe since it acquired Famous Amos in 2001 as part of Keebler. However, Famous Amos was previously owned by several other companies, she said.