Mrs. Fields turns chocolate chip cookies into a blue-chip business

Every day before noon the aroma of fresh chocolate chip cookies begins wafting from the tiny red and white shop two blocks from the White House. Few can resist it. Even lawyers, legislators, and agency czars queue up self-consciously in the long lines that stretch out into the street from Mrs. Fields's shop at Connecticut and K Street.

Is there a real Mrs. Fields, or is she just a corporate logo? She's real, all right, but she's not the grandmotherly cookie pusher you'd expect. Debra Fields looks more like a Hollywood starlet or a hotshot ski instructor, with her long blonde hair, cover-girl smile, and svelte figure.

She and her husband, Randolph Fields, a financial consultant to Fortune 500 companies, run the cookie company from Park City, Utah, the ski-resort town where they live with their three daughters, Jessica, Jenessa, and Jennifer.

It all began just nine years ago with a few dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies, which they flacked with free samples from the Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery in a Palo Alto, Calif., shopping center near Stanford University.

Today Mrs. Fields is an international business, with sales ``in excess'' of $30 million, 201 domestic stores, and 15 around the world in Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Japan, and Canada and a London one opening soon.

The company expects to close the end of l986 with 350 stores. The ``in excess of $30 million'' annual sales figure, Mrs. Fields suggests, is extremely low, since that estimate dates back to 1983, when there were only 63 stores. The number of stores has more than tripled since then. Some people in the industry estimate sales may be as high as $60 million.

When Mrs. Fields bakes, mountains of food move: 7 million pounds of chocolate, 4 million pounds of butter, 1 million pounds of walnuts. ``We use 10 percent of the world's macadamia nut crop,'' she says.

The successful cookie is s soft, chewy, studded with chocolate and nuts to the density of fruitcake; it is the size of a demitasse saucer.

Since all the cookies must be made from scratch in the store and baked in front of the customers, they are still warm when the customer buys them. To Fields fans, they are the ultimate cookie.

Naturally, fans of other lucrative designer cookies, like David's Cookies, Famous Amos, Tom's Mom's, the Original Great American Chocolate Chip Cookie, and others, don't agree. That's the way the cookie crumbles. At 55 to 65 cents each, or $5.25 to $6.25 a pound, they are not inexpensive.

But upscale cookies are a national obsession; last year Americans spent over $200 million on freshly baked, over-the-counter cookies. The basic Fields chocolate chip cookie, which has a characteristic buttery, brown sugar flavor, includes hunks of variations on the theme: it comes with walnuts, pecans, or macadamia nuts, with coconut, and with semisweet, milk, or white chocolate.

The white chocolate and macadamia cookies are the company's best seller nationwide. Fields customers in the East prefer semisweet chocolate, but you can't give it away in Utah, where milk chocolate is the favorite. Coming up is something new, called cookies and cream, with a mousse-like filling between cookies. Mrs. Fields has also ventured into muffinmaking at shops in Utah and San Francisco, with flavors including red raspberry, chocolate zucchini, coconut pineapple, raisin bran, and pumpkin spice among others.

According to Mrs. Fields standards, if a cookie has exceeded a two-hour holding time, it's called a cookie orphan. ``That means we have to find a home for it other than our customers,'' she explains. In Park City, for example, this means the cookies at the end of the day are donated to the Red Cross; other Fields stores give them to a local charity or, as in Washington, sell them at a discount at the end of the day.

``I was about 17 when I came up with the perfect cookie,'' recalls Mrs. Fields. ``I finally got enough chocolate into it so that the chocolate wouldn't fall out of the dough. Now the batter has enough of all the right ingredients so that if you added any more, the cookie would fall apart.''

She got her recipe where she wanted it, she says, by sampling the dough. ``If the dough tastes great,'' she explains, ``it's got to taste great coming from the oven.''

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