On September 26th, the world lost an icon of the silver screen and a man who will forever personify a uniquely light-hearted, dignified and warmly genuine brand of American masculinity—Paul Newman. The significance of his place in our world and the sadness of his passing have been chronicled exhaustively and I do not intend to repeat that work here. My purpose is to eulogize the work that Newman and his daughter, Nell, accomplished on behalf of the organics movement in America and how their grassroots marketing strategy hugely influenced the perception of organic foods in the public eye.
Nell Newman was the catalyst for the launch of Newman’s Own, but before the inception or even the idea of a giant retail enterprise devoted to organics, there was her love of the freshest foods instilled by her upbringing. Remembering her childhood in Connecticut, Nell describes a lifestyle as far removed from Hollywood or Broadway as it is possible to imagine—fishing with her dad and cleaning and preparing the catch to be eaten with corn and tomatoes from the local farm stand. In an interview with Conscious Choice magazine, she reminisced about the passion her dad had for sorting through and selecting the ripest watermelon and cantaloupe from the garden on their Connecticut farmstead that supplied their kitchen table. It’s clear from reading her stories and commentary about her early life that the Newman family, whether aware of the “organic” distinction or not, wove the best of fresh and local foods into their home lives in indelible ways that would stay with her.
Paul Newman himself was not predisposed towards a favorable view of organics, having been the victim once or twice of recipes like “the nut loaf with yeast gravy your mother used to make back in the seventies.” When Nell, whose initial training and career had been in wildlife ecology and endangered species preservation, hatched the idea of an organic food company, she knew the first educational hurdle was right at home looking across the table at her. So she did what the Willy Street Co-op Kitchen is now doing in several Madison schools—she served up food that was delicious and instantly recognizable, but made with organic ingredients—in her case, Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal was over and she revealed the “secret” ingredients, Dad’s response was “You got me, kid.” He volunteered to pay Nell and her friend and business partner Peter Meehan a small salary for a year to get educated on what launching the business would entail. Newman himself was not unfamiliar with the prepared foods industry, having founded the Newman’s Own label in 1982 on the strength of his salad dressings and public image--but he left it to Nell to make the organic connection.
She did so by continuing with the strategy that had proved successful with Thanksgiving dinner—give ‘em what they know they like, just change the source of the ingredients. The first product for Newman’s Own Organics would be the humble but mighty pretzel, made with “traditional” white flour in contrast to the glut of whole-grain products she saw in the marketplace. Again basing her point of view on her firsthand experience, she knew organics did not have to stay a niche market for health food enthusiasts. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father’s business model, donating 100 percent of after-tax profits to select charities (including, but not limited to: Organic Farming Research Foundation, Predatory Bird Research Group, Habitat for Humanity, Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Grand Canyon River Guides, Rainforest Action Network), but she wanted to do big business and do it with a commitment to 80% or better organic content. Typically, they do much better than that 80 percent benchmark, with the flagship product being 100 percent organic and chocolates 99.9 percent organic.
Although the organics line accounts for less than 10 percent of the total sales of Newman’s Own, it’s well to view that measure in a dollars and cents context: Newman’s Own reported sales of $120 million for the fiscal year ending in December 2007. With Nell the heir apparent to Newman’s Own as a label, she is poised to expand her passion for organics and sustainable agriculture through colossal buying and marketing leverage.
While writing this article, I thought a lot about my own involvement with the organics movement, which started not through my work in restaurants but through my reading of Wendell Berry. I had gotten interested in his work because of the proximity of his culture and region to that of my mother’s parents and their life on the farm. Later, when my career choices dictated that organics were some of the tools of my trade, I felt the conflict between the kind of agriculture I wanted to support and the kind of people I associated with the virtues of a life close to the land. Organics in the restaurant world often mean menus studded with the names of farms on entrees that the farmers could never afford. Working at Willy Street Co-op has been a big step forward for me in realizing the goal of cooking organic food that people can (and want to) eat more than once or twice a year, and my approach struck me as being in the same vein as Nell Newman’s. Speaking to people on their own terms and offering a great product at a fair price is a business model that has stood the test of time and has succeeded in her case as well. Here’s health to the real ol’ blue eyes, a class act by any measure of the phrase. You gave much in life and left even more behind.