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The Famous 4th St. Cookie Co. is sold

The buyers say they plan to make few changes.

David and Janie Auspitz have sold the Famous 4th Street Cookie Co., the carb lover's fantasy that they built three decades ago in the Queen Village deli they formerly owned.

The buyers - veteran restaurateur Brian Phillips and his wife, Tina, and lawyer Michael Untermeyer - say they plan to do little to change what both men call a Philadelphia institution.

Famous' hockey puck-size chocolate-chip cookies - the bestseller by a 5-1 ratio - will remain firm on the outside and chewy on the inside, oozing its molten chocolate inner core onto your hands if you are careless or bold enough not to hold it in a napkin.

The retail store at the southernmost 12th Street entrance of Reading Terminal Market will remain, as will its manager, Cathy Burns, a 19-year veteran, and her staff. Famous has a limited wholesale business.

The plan is to move the bakery later this year from its home on South Fourth Street in Queen Village to a new facility, in a former state liquor store at 4177-85 Ridge Ave. in East Falls, and to grow Internet and mail-order business.

"We're not leaving Philadelphia," said Brian Phillips, who is brought full circle at the market by the transaction. Now owner and operator of the Copabanana location in University City, he started in the food business nearly four decades ago as a kid working at 12th Street Cantina.

Untermeyer says his past life had him working as an assistant district attorney under Lynne M. Abraham, whom Mayor Frank Rizzo famously branded "one tough cookie."

"Now, it's one delicious cookie," Untermeyer offered.

"More often than not, when clients come in, they're not too thrilled with having to see you," said Untermeyer, who primarily handles real estate transactions.

But selling cookies, he said, is associated with "joy and pleasure. You give them something that makes them smile."

Auspitz began selling cookies in the early 1980s at the deli that his father opened in 1933 at Fourth and Bainbridge Streets.

Like any deli owner, Auspitz offered something sweet to balance the richness of the Jewish soul food of knishes and corned beef sandwiches.

It was always ice cream. Famous had a big freezer case along the front of the delicatessen, he said.

A local ice cream company owned the case, a common arrangement. When Auspitz bought some containers of a newfangled premium ice cream called Häagen-Dazs from a local jobber and added it to his other inventory, "they got angry and took out their freezer."

Cookies then replaced ice cream. Janie Auspitz started baking from her own recipe - first in Famous' kitchen and later in a bakery in a building on the same Fourth Street block as the deli.

Rare is the downtown office that has not slipped off the plastic wrap from a ring-shape assortment of Famous cookies, with foil-wrapped Hershey's mini chocolates in the center as a garnish.

Since the Auspitzes sold the deli nearly 11 years ago, David Auspitz has spent his time shuttling between the bakery and the stand at Reading Terminal Market, where he enjoys playing an elder statesman.

Untermeyer said he had heard through the grapevine that the Auspitzes were considering selling the cookie business, and he approached Phillips, a longtime friend. "We were walking down the street and Michael asks, 'Do you want to own a cookie company?' and I just said no," Phillips said. "Then I pondered it and thought of my children. I didn't want my children's future to hinge on a bar. I've been eating these cookies for 30 years. I turned to Michael and said, 'Let's do this.' "

As for why the Auspitzes wanted to sell: "I'm 70, and quite frankly, because of my age. There's nobody coming up behind me," David Auspitz said. "What if something goes wrong? This [sale] bodes well for the city."

The sale price was not disclosed, but presumably, the Auspitzes are in the chips, figuratively.

In fact, David Auspitz is still in the chips, literally.

Right after the sale was completed, he took his first weekend off in a half-century but on Tuesday, he was behind the counter again. He has an agreement with Phillips and Untermeyer to remain with the company for two years.