Newman's daughter goes organic

September 14, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It wasn't easy developing a snack product with the perfect blend of old-fashioned taste and new-fangled appeal. It wasn't easy finding a small manufacturer who would deal with 50-pound bags of flour and follow organic production guidelines. It wasn't easy getting the product recognition, and getting it into stores.

But none of that was the hardest part for Nell Newman, who a little over a year ago introduced the first products in a new line of foods called Newman's Own Organics. The hardest part was convincing her father that "organic" was a good way to go.

When Ms. Newman, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., told her dad, actor and food purveyor Paul Newman, about all the organic products in California, "He just grumbled."

It took a family dinner a few years ago to convince him.

"I've always been the family cook," says Ms. Newman, 35, who was in Baltimore for the Natural Foods Expo last weekend at the Convention Center. "I've been the family cook for years. When I was at home I always cooked, and I usually cook over all the holidays. I always used organic. I ship salad greens out when I go back [to Connecticut] for Christmas. I get a 3-pound box for 12 bucks Fed Ex'd back East from my favorite farm."

The term "organic" refers to food that is cultivated or processed without the use of any chemicals, including fertilizers, insecticides, additives, artificial coloring or flavoring.

"I always sought out organic produce, because to me it always tasted better, the quality was better -- if you got it fresh." Ms Newman says. "So he didn't realize he'd been eating organic food for a long time. But I pointed it out to him that year for Thanksgiving. I made him his usual dinner, and I said, 'How did you like your organic Thanksgiving dinner?' And that really swayed him.

"It's just a matter of having a good cook, good raw ingredients. It doesn't have to be heavy and whole wheat."

The first products from Newman's Own Organics, Second Generation, a division of Newman's Own, are three varieties of pretzels: traditional salted sticks, and a "Newman" shape, an N inside an O, in both salted and unsalted versions.

To figure out what the first product would be, Ms. Newman and her business partner, Peter Meehan, began visiting food expos in California and across the country about three years ago. "We decided on pretzels because pretzels were just booming. They're a baked, not fried, snack, and because of that, they're enjoying this real resurgence of growth. And we thought, hey, this is it. And also," she says, laughing, "it's my dad's favorite snack."

The pretzels have a crisp texture and old-fashioned flavor that Ms. Newman ascribes to the ingredients, which include unbleached wheat and rye flour and barley malt. "I went out and tasted everybody's pretzels to see what I liked, every thing in the health-food store, everything in the grocery store," Ms. Newman says.

"What I discovered was the ones that still used barley malt were the ones that tasted good to me. Barley malt has a really deep, rich taste. A lot of manufacturers have switched over to corn syrup over the years, because it's a cheaper sweetener, but it doesn't have the flavor."

When she and Mr. Meehan looked for a manufacturer, they discovered that most had flour shipped in in truckloads and dumped it into a silo. They had to find someone who still dealt with small quantities of flour, 50-pound bags, and who would be able to make their products without cross-contamination from products that were not certified organic. A group called Oregon Tilth oversees the production and certifies the pretzels as being produced in accordance with organic standards.

The goal, however, is "great-tasting food that just happens to be organic," Ms. Newman says. "My mentor in this is Alice Waters [chef-owner] of Chez Panisse [in Berkeley, Calif.] . . . Eighty-five to 90 percent of her ingredients -- everything from meat to olive oil -- is organic. She was really my inspiration for this because she's just providing consumers with great-tasting food that's organic. You don't hear people walking out of there saying, 'Oooh, that tasted or-gan-ic.'"

Like her father, Ms. Newman will turn all after-tax profits from the company to charity. (Mr. Newman's Newman's Own has donated more than $56 million to a variety of charitable and educational causes.)

"My philanthropical interests are pretty broad," says Ms. Newman, who has a degree in human ecology from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She's interested in endangered species, in sustainable agriculture and in alleviating the problems of the homeless, among other things. She's always worked in the nonprofit sector, she says, a background she believes will be valuable in evaluating programs for donations.

As for that other family business, acting, it was not for her. "I did a couple of movies when I was little," she says. "You have to be possessed to be an actress, and I was not possessed . . . It was not my life's passion."

For the immediate future, Ms. Newman says Newman's Own Organics will be introducing some new products in the next six months -- she won't say what, for competitive reasons -- and she plans to move beyond the snack category. But for the more distant future, she has one goal for her fledgling company: "I want it to be at least as big as Newman's Own."

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