MICHAEL COLES RHAPSODIZES about chocolate chip cookies the way art connoisseurs might about a Picasso. “There is this hue,” he says almost reverently, “this very special hue that the cookies reach as they bake, going from a creamy white to this very special golden tan that belongs only to the chocolate chip cookie world.” Coles, 52, has used this passion for cookies to build a multimillion-dollar empire. Now he’s hoping the same zeal—along with a whole lot of dough—will help him win a seat in Congress.
A Democrat and first-time candidate for political office, Coles is running in Georgia’s sixth election district—an affluent archipelago of suburbs north of Atlanta. At first glance, that appears a fool’s errand. Not only is the sixth one of the country’s most solidly Republican enclaves, but it’s also the seat of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who remains popular on his home turf despite high negatives elsewhere in the country. So confident is Gingrich, who holds a lead in the polls, that he has barely bothered to campaign, preferring instead to raise funds for other Republican candidates elsewhere.
Quixotic though his quest may be, Coles is a man blessed with a remarkable can-do spirit. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Buffalo and Miami, Coles graduated from high school not long before his first marriage, at 20, which produced two children—Lorin, now 30, and Jody, 28. He was divorced eight years later. By 1977 he owned a clothing store. While visiting a cookie shop on a break from a trade exhibit in San Diego, he got to talking with the proprietor, who confided that he was making phenomenal profits. Intrigued, Coles went straight to a grocery store to buy the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies, then to a drugstore to purchase a postal scale.
Back in the kitchen of his hotel suite, he whipped up a batch of cookies, measuring out the ingredients to calculate the cost. For just 6 cents, he baked a cookie that sold for 30 cents in the store. At home in Atlanta, he shared this revelation with his second wife, Donna (whom he had married in 1972), and friends Arthur and Susan Karp, who boasted of their chocolate chip cookie recipe, which had been handed down for three generations. In June 1977, the two couples opened the first Great American Cookie Co. store at the Perimeter Mall in Atlanta. “We needed to do $12,000 over the first six weeks to break even,” says Coles, “and we did over $30,000.”
But Coles almost didn’t get a chance to savor his success. As he was riding his motorcycle home from work three months after the store opened, a rock lodged in his rear tire and sent him face first into a telephone pole. When he awoke at Northside Hospital hours later, doctors told him his right leg was so badly injured that he would never walk again without a cane or crutches. “At the time,” recalls Coles, “I thought, ‘Well, hey—it’s better than not waking up at all.’ ” Nine months later, however, hobbling on two canes, he tried to race his 3-year-old daughter Taryn to the mailbox and realized he could never accept his infirmity. “I decided right then and there that I could not spend the rest of my life like that,” he says.
A disciplined runner and weight-lifter, Coles embarked on an arduous, self-prescribed rehab program, which included riding a stationary bike. Soon he was zipping around on a 10-speed and was hooked. He began biking as many as 100 miles a week, and in June 1982, five years after his accident, he took part in a 2,600-mile cross-country race from Savannah to San Diego, with wife Donna and Taryn tagging along in a motor home. He finished in 15½ days. Two years later, Coles set a record that still stands—11 days 8 hours 15 minutes. (He was also part of the four-man team holding the Los Angeles-to-New York City record, at 5 days 1 hour 8 minutes.) Drawing on his cookie and racing triumphs, he became a popular motivational speaker at conferences nationwide.
His athletic feats have earned him headlines, but his cookie company may be an even bigger success story, having grown into a $100 million business, with 400 outlets in 38 states. In retrospect, Coles, whose personal fortune is estimated at $30 million, thinks he succeeded precisely because he knew nothing about the food business but understood retail. “Others set up their stores like bakeries while we set ours up like clothing stores that were selling cookies—with special promotions and lots of life and excitement,” he says. “The stores were fun.”
To compete with Gingrich’s $3.6 million war chest, Coles expects to spend $2 million of his own money on the campaign to bolster the $1 million he has been able to raise. He downplays his lack of legislative experience, espouses pro-business policies like tax credits for job creation and investment, and promises to heed the wishes of constituents, arguing that Gingrich has lost touch with local voters as he pushes a national political agenda. Gingrich has airily dismissed Coles as a “millionaire liberal.” Come November, it will be up to voters to decide whether, finally, Michael Coles has bitten off more than he can chew.
GAIL CAMERON WESCOTT in Atlanta