They don't call him Famous Amos for nothing.
From his trademark white hat to his signature grin to the clown-festooned suspenders he wore Tuesday, Wally Amos was every bit the self-acknowledged promoter who became the widely recognized father of the fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookie craze.
"When I started selling cookies 12 years ago right here in Hollywood, California, I never thought about being black," Amos told about 400 minority entrepreneurs gathered at a conference to mark national Minority Enterprise Development Week.
"What's there to think about?" Amos said. "I'd say, what can I do to get this cookie store open because I'm going to be black all day. If I can't open this cookie store because I'm black, I might as well go back to bed."
Van Nuys-based Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie Corp. now has about 65 franchised stores in the United States and internationally and its packaged cookies can be found in about 8,500 retail outlets. But the trip from that original store on Sunset Boulevard was not smooth, Amos said.
"When I started the cookie business, hey, nobody was giving me anything," he said. "I even had to go to some friends to invest because even the (U.S. Small Business Administration) didn't want to talk to me. That's how low on the totem pole I was."
With friends like Helen Reddy, the late Marvin Gaye and others from his years as a personal manager in the entertainment business, Amos was able to raise $25,000. Hard work, a ferocious commitment and a knack for promotion helped Amos build the company.
Cash flow problems led Amos in search of investors. The billionaire Bass family of Fort Worth bought a majority interest in the company in March, 1985. That interest was resold a few months later to an investor group that includes former U.S. Sen. John V. Tunney and New York apparel executive and movie financier Sidney Kimmel. Amos still is a company shareholder and appears on every bag of cookies sold.
Fred Saldana Sr., chief executive of G&D Aircraft in Pomona, was named minority entrepreneur of the year by the local office of the Small Business Administration at Tuesday's conference, which was co-sponsored by the SBA, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells and the Los Angeles Business Journal.