Women in IP: Debbi Fields’ Recipe for Success

Note: This is the second in GIPC’s series of “Women In IP” features in recognition of March as Women’s History Month. Read the first feature here.

Debbi Fields remembers her first paycheck; she was a teenager working in a department store. She spent it on real butter, chocolate, and vanilla; she had only ever baked with margarine and imitation chocolate, as her family couldn’t afford unnecessarily expensive groceries.

Perhaps young Fields’ shopping habits give us a glimpse into her world-famous Mrs. Fields cookie recipe. Today, that recipe – protected by a trade secret registration and backed by an iconic trademark – is the foundation of the $450 million Mrs. Fields company.

But Fields remembers when the company was only an idea. Her family told her she had no education or experience. Her friends pointed to market studies showing most people preferred crispy cookies, not soft cookies like Mrs. Fields cookies. Banks turned down her appeals for business loans; the loan she did receive was based upon the banker’s trust in Fields – not in the viability of her cookie business.

Fields, not one to quit easily, worked hard to challenge her doubters and exceed expectations.

The morning her first store opened in Palo Alto, her husband even bet she couldn’t make $50 in sales. Fields opened her doors at 9 a.m., but by noon, she still had no sales. No one had bought a single cookie.

So Fields took to the streets and gave out free samples. People liked the unique taste of her cookies, following her back to her store to purchase full portions. She closed her first day with $75 in sales.

Fields’ success continued.

Her second store, in San Francisco, beckoned customer lines so long that they caused problems for neighboring businesses. Soon, Fields had orchestrated franchise agreements in Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, Canada, and the Middle East, with the long-term goal of franchising overseas operations across all markets. She had partnered with Marriot Corporation, allowing Marriot to build stores and bake and sell cookies in airports, hotels, and highway travel plazas. Sales were upwards of $100 million.

Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a modern urban legend threatened to uproot the business entirely. According to the legend, a customer called the Mrs. Fields company to ask for the recipe for its famous chocolate chip cookies. When told that the recipe would cost “two-fifty,” the caller agreed to give a credit card number, assuming the charge was $2.50. The caller was then horrified to see a $250 charge on her bank statement.

The tale was accompanied by a recipe the caller allegedly received, urging others to share it.

Debbi Fields worked tirelessly to refute the rumor and delivered every Mrs. Fields store special flyers to deny the legend’s validity. She adapted the company’s entire business model to address the crisis.

Fortunately, Mrs. Fields emerged relatively unscathed.

But, what if the rumor had been more than a rumor? What if Debbi Fields’ recipe, the bedrock of her company, had been compromised?

Unfortunately, businesses of all shapes and sizes endure such intellectual property theft. Fields’ story highlights the importance of registering one’s intellectual property and enforcing against harmful infringement.

Reflecting on her journey as a modern woman entrepreneur, Debbi Fields teaches us another lesson: “The American dream is true. It works and it’s possible for everybody.”

Today, Mrs. Fields cookies continue to be a dominant force in the marketplace.

And Debbi Fields’ coveted trade secret is certainly the recipe for success.

Kasie Brill is the senior director of brand protection for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Intellectual Property Center. 

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