Sunday, September 30, 2012

BC2012: Shameless Exploitation In Pursuit of the Common Good

This is a great story well told, which is all you can really ask for in a book. With great humor, Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner describe how a night of bottling salad dressing in Newman's barn basement as a Christmas gift for neighbors led to an internationally successful food corporation whose annual profits are distributed to charities. They didn't have any business experience, but they knew what they wanted to create and made it happen, changing entire categories of the food industry.

Nowadays we see all sorts of all-natural products on store shelves, but in my youth it wasn't like that. Newman's Own salad dressing was the first all-natural dressing, defying the industry standard of using additives and preservatives to extend shelf life. In fact, it turned out that Newman's recipe -- and it really was his own recipe, plus he personally taste-tested and approved every new product as well -- created a natural gum, and the product doesn't even require refrigeration after opening! Heck, I've seen entire shelves in refrigerator doors dedicated to salad dressings.

When Newman turned to pasta sauce, he once again changed how things were done. Ever wonder why Ragu is just watery slop? When pasta sauces were originally bottled, they were purees intended to be used as a base for a home sauce. It was expected that the cook would add fresh vegetables, chunks of meat, etc. Of course, now there are lots of chunky sauces, but Newman's Own was among the first (if not the first).

Newman's Own is a remarkable success story, one that shocked even its founders. Newman didn't set out to be a great philanthropist, but he didn't feel right about making a bunch of money on what was essentially a side business or hobby. So once the millions started rolling in, he figured he should give it to people who really needed it.

In 1985 he got an idea for a charity of his own, the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for sick children. A large section of the book describes the founding of the original camp and its many affiliates. The authors include many touching letters from kids who attended the camp.

Anyone who has ever looked closely at Newman's Own products has some idea of Newman and Hotchner's sense of humor -- every product has its own "creation myth" detailed on the label -- and this book is written with that same wit. It's an inspiring story that's fun to read.


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