In 1992, when Nell Newman got the idea to start an organic snack-foods company, consumers weren't quite ready to bite — and neither was her dad, Paul.
The Oscar-winning movie star already had a successful food company of his own — Newman's Own — which was known for donating 100 percent of the profits from its salad dressings, lemonade and pasta sauces to charitable causes. But Nell was determined to convince her father that there was a future in organics beyond the bulgur loafs and carob bars that dominated the sector. So she cooked him dinner:
"Without telling him, I had an organic farm in California FedEx me a three-pound box of organic salad greens and peas and potatoes and I got hold of an organic turkey…" Nell told Grist. "I made my usual Thanksgiving dinner, exactly the way that Dad loves it, but with all organic ingredients. And when he started wiping his plate clean, I said, 'So, how did you like your organic meal, Pa?' And he got the picture."
Today, Newman's Own Organics, which launched as a division of Newman's Own Inc. in 1993 and became an independent company in late 2000, features an extensive line that includes pretzels (its inaugural product), cookies, mints, dried fruit, coffee, popcorn, olive oil, vinegar, chocolate bars and pet food. The company also maintains the brand's tradition of giving. The sale of each Newman's Own Organic product generates revenue for the Newman's Own Foundation, which has given away more than $250 million since 1982.
Newman's Own Organics' success over the last 16 years mirrors the remarkable growth of the organic industry, and the acceptance of natural food products into mainstream markets. Company co-founder Peter Meehan recalls, "When we first started making chocolate bars, the only place you could get organic sugar was the island of Mauritius — this tiny dot in the Indian Ocean." Today, due to raised consumer demand, farmers across South America and as locally as Florida now grow sugar organically.
Meanwhile, the company has played a significant role in spreading the organic gospel to the masses. Its light-hearted packaging, which often features Nell and "Pa" Newman dressed in mock American Gothic garb, and use of familiar ingredients like white sugar and flour — once frowned upon by the natural foods industry — has helped to broaden the appeal of organic products to a wider market of consumers. It also vastly expanded the accessibility of organic coffee through an unorthodox, but effective partnership with McDonald's, which serves Newman's Own Organics fair trade java at 650 of its locations in the Northeast.
Many smaller organic food companies point to Newman's Own Organics as one of the pioneers that paved the way for the organics revolution, which has steadily emerged over the last two decades. But according to Meehan, much of the credit belongs to Paul. "If we had tried to sell Pete's Organic Pretzels, the story might have been very different," he says. "[Launching under the Newman name] gave us a platform to work from that consumers already recognized and trusted." Additionally, "Pa" Newman, like a good father and a good businessman, pushed his daughter and Meehan to start small, do everything themselves and gain experience along the way. "Nell's dad really inspired us to keep going and build the business into what it is today," Meehan says.
As his daughter's company took off, and the world began to wake up to the dangers of pesticides and industrial agriculture, Paul's own interest in ethical food grew. Newman's Own introduced organic versions of several of its products, independently of the Newman's Own Organics brand. And working with chef and local foods-enthusiast Michel Nischan, he also opened a sustainable restaurant, The Dressing Room, in Connecticut in 2006. Nell played a role in introducing her dad to Nischan — though this time, she didn't have to cook him dinner. A 2006 New York Times article about the restaurant wrote:
"When [Nell] heard that her father wanted to open a restaurant, she asked around to find a chef who could help him do it right. 'Dad wanted someone who'd make him meatloaf, and I knew I had to have a place to go where I could eat organic.' Ms. Newman turned to Mr. Nischan, who impressed Pop ... with a vision that included the farmers' market and a cooking and gardening curriculum in the local schools."
When Paul Newman died in September 2008, the world lost an incredible talent and one of its most beloved entrepreneurs and philanthropists. The Newman's Own and Newman's Own Organics brands also lost their "Pa." While Paul was no longer deeply involved in the day-to-day business of the brands that bore his name, his legacy and personality were behind every product.
But while his humor and vision will be sorely missed, Meehan says Paul laid a strong foundation that will endure well into the future. "He was very wise and he knew at some point he wouldn't be here," she says. "So he made sure to articulate what was important to him, and that the people around him understood." Meehan believes that as long as Newman's Own Organics stays true to its mission of creating high-quality, ethical products, while participating in charitable activities, the Newman legacy will live on.