Hot, fresh, still-warm cookies — that’s what drew in shoppers when Mrs. Fields Cookies began to pop up in American malls in the early 1980s. Store-bought Chips Ahoy! were known for being crumbly and crunchy, and the similarly mall-associated David’s Cookies championed crispness. But the chocolate chip rounds from Mrs. Fields Cookies, founded by Debbi Fields in 1977, were notably soft and thick, with this straight-out-of-the-oven quality so integral to their appeal that in the company’s early years it donated any cookies older than two hours instead of selling them to customers.
At the time Mrs. Fields launched, the American public had suddenly found itself in the midst of a cookie boom (Famous Amos and David’s Cookies hit the market around the same time). It’s easy to see why cookies would flourish during the tumult of the late ’70s. A fresh chocolate chip cookie immediately conjures a comforting daydream of domestic American life: the kids getting home from school to find a heaping plate of just-baked cookies on the counter, a glass of cold milk beside it, and the smell of warm sugar in the air.
In 1977, the 20-year-old Fields, who’d grown up loving to bake, scored a loan for $50,000 and opened Mrs. Fields’ Chocolate Chippery in Palo Alto, California. With initial business slower than expected, Fields hit the street and offered samples of her fresh cookies. Between 1977 and 1988, she went from running a single cookie shop to being the queen of the American shopping mall, as president of a company with 275 stores — 78 percent of which were in malls — in dozens of states and five other countries. The cookie brand picked up fans and expanded, and franchising entered the picture in 1990. Within a couple of years, Fields sold the brand to an investment company for $100 million; by 1993, the company had 780 stores.
Debbi Fields’s working-mom persona made the brand stand out: She, just as much as her cookies, conveyed the enticing idea, or wholesome memory, of a caring mother’s quest to create the best for her family. Her image as a successful businesswoman straddled the period’s blurring line between traditional feminine expectations and the growing class of American working women. That idea is clear in the title of Fields’s 1987 autobiography, One Smart Cookie: How a Housewife’s Chocolate Chip Recipe Turned Into a Multimillion-Dollar Business.
For Pooja Bavishi, it wasn’t Fields’s mall-famous chocolate chip cookies that changed her life but the white chocolate cheesecake that she, at around 10 years old, watched Fields bake on her PBS cooking show Debbi Fields’ Great American Desserts. “It’s my earliest baking memory,” says Bavishi, who now runs the Brooklyn-based ice cream company Malai. Not only did the cheesecake look amazing, but Fields seemed so confident in the kitchen — and she was nothing like Bavishi’s expectations from seeing the chain at her North Carolina mall. She’d imagined an older grandmother type, round like a cookie come to life. That specific confusion was common. “It never dawned on me that people would think I’m an old woman,” Fields said in an interview when she was 29. She was, in fact, young, smiling, and beautiful, her hair big in that ’80s way. That unexpected reality stood out to Bavishi. “It is such a distinct memory of mine: me realizing that she wasn’t what I was expecting her to be,” she says. “Seeing a young female entrepreneur doing her thing, I just felt really inspired that I could do it too.”
When Mrs. Fields Cookies began popping up across the country, more women than ever were working outside the home. Their participation in the American labor force grew from 43 percent in 1970 to 58 percent in 1990 (and all of that was up from just 34 percent in 1950). These circumstances baked a dichotomy into the image of Fields as entrepreneur: Success as a working woman was possible, but it also was tethered to the traditional expectations of the American nuclear family (not to mention, of course, to how those traditions intersected with middle-class values and whiteness). Through the post-girlboss lens of today, when the female food entrepreneur is par for the course, the image of Debbi Fields as 1980s baking momtrepreneur appears like a setting of the stage.
“Here I was a kid with no money, no formal education, and no job experience… All I had was a dream and a recipe, and I built a business out of it,” Fields recalled in 1996. That lore earned Fields write-ups as a “feminist American dream,” “branding queen,” “hall of fame”-worthy entrepreneur, and “one of the more successful and enduring” of the ’70s wave of cookie magnates.
Still, little barbs in the way the Fields story was written suggest that, by the standards of the time, there was only so much a woman could be credited for in terms of business savvy. Though it ultimately concluded that she was a business success, albeit an unconventional one, a 1986 feature in Ford Motor Co.’s branded lifestyle magazine posed the question: “Is she a front, like Betty Crocker, although in this case a living, breathing, and good-looking front?”
Consider how people wrote about that initial $50,000 investment. When the New York Times covered the company’s expansion in 1983, Fields’s then-husband, Randy, was framed as the older, established professional, and she as the younger-by-nearly-a-decade happy homemaker: “With a favorite recipe, an image of home-baked goodness and help from her husband — a professional financial adviser — a 26-year-old woman has built a $30 million cookie chain.” A 1992 story in the Oklahoman garners sympathy if not credit: Thought of as “a blond nothing of a wife” by Randy’s acquaintances, as Fields said, the two of them secured a loan, intending for the bakery to pull her out of the housewife hole.
Randy did play a big role as the company’s chairman from 1978 to 1990, and was hailed for his software innovations in particular. (After parting from the brand, he founded a software company, and in the mid-’90s, the two divorced.) But “the way the sentences are written, there’s this inclusion of him and his expertise as though it in some way explains or qualifies her success,” says Emily Contois, a professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa whose book Diners, Dudes & Diets explores gender and power in food culture.
Even in 1998, the Deseret News business editor Max B. Knudson, reportedly the first to cover the “Fields phenomenon,” still cast aspersions on Fields’s contributions. “Everyone assumed that Randy was the real brains behind the Mrs. Fields operation but he always denied it,” he wrote. “Still, Randy’s experience as an investment banker and his public speeches in which he established himself as a serious economist, (he majored in political science at Stanford University) clearly implied that he was the business brains behind Debbi’s marvelous marketing persona.”
That marketing was crucial: Mr. Fields Cookies likely wouldn’t have been such a hit. “It’s true, too, that it’s very hard for women, especially in that time period, to have any capital,” says Megan J. Elias, a food historian and the director of the gastronomy program at Boston University. “It’s true that she needed [her husband’s] help: The cookie recipes, the idea to have a cookie company — all that can be hers. But for the public to accept her…”
The messaging of “success, but…” was typical of the time, Elias explains. “It’s very much a part of this 1980s contradictory retrenchment of womanhood.” “It’s both this Reagan-era ‘Let’s put Mom back in the kitchen making cookies’ and the reality that women are really, really beginning to succeed in middle-class and upper-middle-class professions.” Considered in tandem, Fields and burgeoning empire builder Martha Stewart, who published her first cookbook in 1982, both had public personas as the new working woman, but one who still appealed to existing social conventions.
Looking back, it certainly was a feat for a housewife — one born in 1956, no less — to make a leap into the national business scene. But that Fields’s accomplishments occurred within the domestic space points to the limitations in women’s professional roles; even today, the “pink dungeon” or “pink ghetto” of pastry confines many women working in restaurants. “Her success is in itself sort of retro: As a woman, you’re allowed to succeed if you’re succeeding in an area that’s already marked as female,” Elias says.
The language we use to talk about women in the workplace has changed — at the very least, it’s unlikely we would describe a female business owner today in terms of her height, weight, and skirt length, as reporters felt comfortable doing with Fields. But how much has the reality, in terms of the concessions women must make to succeed, really evolved? Female entrepreneurs still struggle to secure funding today, with that situation even more challenging for Black and brown women. That Fields and Stewart — and for that matter, Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, and Ree Drummond — are all white women certainly is no coincidence.
These days, neither Fields nor the Mrs. Fields brand are likely to be the first things that come to mind when you think of chocolate chip cookies; newer contenders like Crumbl and Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar better represent America’s changing tastes. In 1993, as part of the terms for the Mrs. Fields company receiving $46 million in debt relief, Fields gave up her position as president and CEO, though clearly her name still appears on every tin of cookies that’s shipped to doors nationwide (so much for that old two-hour window). The Mrs. name might have had another unintended effect, almost like what Bavishi found with her mismatched expectations: Some people didn’t realize Fields was a real person at all, assuming her to be a corporate creation like Mrs. Butterworth or Mr. Coffee.
Today, Fields isn’t like Stewart, Garten, or Drummond — those other inescapable, big-name domestic entrepreneurs. She once compared being out of the business to empty-nest syndrome: devastating, but you learn to adapt. On Instagram, where her username is @butterisbest, Fields appears as a family woman who still loves baking, posting pictures of chocolate chips and butter alongside smiling children. In the ’80s, Mrs. Fields might have been the cookie-baking mom figure the American public needed; now, it seems, her baking is happening more in private. No matter whether it’s made by Mom or bought from the mall, the chocolate chip cookie will always taste like home, or at least the ideal of it.
Pablo Espinosa Gutiérrez is a psychedelic illustrator with a lifelong dream of secretly living in a mall.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein