When the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies first drifted out of Debbi Fields' small shop in Palo Alto nine years ago, not a single customer traced it back to the door of Mrs. Fields Cookies.
By the end of that morning, Fields knew she was well on the way to losing a bet with her investment counselor husband, Randy, who told her she would do less than $50 in business her first day.
"Here I am armed with all this belief that it's going to be great, it's going to be wonderful and I'm going to have a lot of fun . . . and I didn't have a single customer," Fields told 2,100 businesswomen gathered in Los Angeles at the Governor's Conference on Women in Business.
"It looked very obvious to me that I was failing," she said. So Fields loaded a tray with her cookies and walked down the street giving them away. It worked.
"People followed me down the street and I made not only $50, I made $75!" said Fields, an upbeat, cheerleader-like speaker who occasionally had to compete with the crinkling of bags of Mrs. Fields Cookies that had been distributed in the audience.
The daylong conference was kicked off by Gov. George Deukmejian, who said: "Women in business have played a very important, major role in helping to create this robust economy that we have in our state now.
"Today, I'm very proud to salute all of the women who have helped to make California's remarkable achievements possible," he said. "I want you to know that we're going to continue to do everything we can at the state level to make sure that women in business will always be big business in California."
Awards were given to five California women identified as outstanding entrepreneurs. They are: Dolores Sanchez of Los Angeles, owner of Eastern Group Publications; Robin Rose of Venice, president of Robin Rose Ice Cream & Chocolates; Lonear Heard of Cerritos, owner of six McDonald's franchises; Hollynn Fuller-Boies of Sacramento, president of Pirca Fashions, which makes clothing for the disabled, and Pauline Lo Alker of San Jose, president of Counterpoint Computers.
The 29-year-old Fields told the audience that "I'm here to say that dreams do come true.
"You have to love what you're doing. . . . You've got to have fun, or else life is like one long dental appointment."
Today, the privately held Mrs. Fields Cookies has 350 stores, all company owned, in 25 states and Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Canada and England. The Park City, Utah, company, with more than 3,000 "team members," will do more than $100 million in business this year and will operate about 420 stores by year-end, she said.
And gourmet chocolate chip cookies like those peddled in Fields' shops have achieved incredible popularity, becoming a snack of choice of young urban professionals.
But behind the success of the soft oversize cookies, she said, is a lean management structure and a computer system that lets the company track such things as daily sales and staffing at each store. Then there's Fields fanatical commitment to quality, backed by her many surprise visits to stores and her oft-repeated philosophy that "good enough never is."
Commitment to Quality
The booming cookie business has drawn many entrepreneurs who have found that business isn't always sweet, Fields said in a interview.
"There still are many, many cookie companies," she said. But "the business is perceived as being very easy, and yet it requires a lot of day-to-day management. It requires a lot of commitment to quality.
"What we have seen is the success (of the company) depends on people" because so much of the daily operations are "judgment calls" at the store level, Fields said. But if a manager wants to share an idea with Fields, "you don't have to talk to Mary, Joe, Bob and Mark to get to me."
No Slowdown Expected
Fields doesn't see any slowdown in her business as consumers seek out new waist-expanding treats, although she is constantly testing new recipes on her family for introduction into the stores. For example, the company has added muffins to its cookie line at some stores.
"People never get tired of eating something that's wonderful," Fields said. "People are searching for quality."
Fields and her husband own three other businesses, each named after one of their daughters: Jessica's East Coast Cookie Stores, which has 70 stores in the East; Jennessa's, a hand-made gift store in Park City, Utah, and Jenny's for the Swing Set, a children's clothing store that is about to open in Park City.