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Review: How Paul Newman became a food tycoon

By Gregory McNamee
The Hollywood Reporter

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LOS ANGELES, California (Hollywood Reporter) -- Years ago, I worked at a newspaper with a restaurant critic who was not content just to review the food he was served; he felt compelled to improve on it.

He carried a little spice rack in his briefcase so that he could zest up bland fish with tarragon, torque an insipid sauce with crushed red pepper, repurpose a characterless pilaf with bay leaf and chives. It amused his fellow diners to watch the chowhound in action. It infuriated chefs.

Paul Newman may have similarly irritated the kitchen staff when he did likewise.

"On one occasion, when the restaurant mistakenly served the salad with its own dressing, Paul took the salad to the men's room, washed off the dressing, dried it with paper towels and, after returning to the table, anointed it with his own, which he concocted with ingredients brought to him from the kitchen." So Newman, who has spiced up many an otherwise flat film, and writer A.E. Hotchner recall in their madcap -- and perfectly titled -- memoir, "Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).

When you're a star, of course, you can get away with such things. But fixing a salad in the washroom was more than a whim: For Newman's finicky palate, gums, sugars, artificial colorings, chemical preservatives and other common ingredients in mass-market foods are nothing short of an assault on the sensibilities, a crime against good taste.

Friends and business

In the dark 1980s, Americans didn't have much choice other than to eat such things. Newman started his second career by concocting salad dressings, tomato sauces and other goodies as gifts for friends and family, whence it was that Newman and Hotchner -- "a fading movie star and a cantankerous writer" -- found themselves in Newman's Connecticut basement one Christmas, stirring a batch of vinaigrette with a canoe paddle and wondering what to do with all the leftovers.

Before long, they hit on the notion of going into business, bringing freshly made foods into a market dominated by the artificial and preserved.

Problem was, food consultants told them, celebrity brands just didn't work. Frank Sinatra's line of neckties died on the rack. Reggie Jackson's candy bar left a sour taste. Rocky Graziano's spaghetti sauce didn't even sell in his hometown. "Just because they liked you as Butch Cassidy doesn't mean they'll like your salad dressing," one well-meaning foodie told Newman early on.

By dumb luck, endless experimentation and hard work, the two proved the pundits wrong again and again.

The anecdotes they collect in "Shameless Exploitation" about beating the odds are a stitch. And beat the odds they did, especially after they decided to turn over all their profits to charity, a classic example of doing well by doing good. The Newman's Own brand is now two decades along, selling 77 different products in markets throughout the English-speaking world.

"In 2002," they write, "our gross sales were $110 million, with an after-tax profit of $12 million, which we distributed to over two hundred charities."

This year, they add, profits are projected to increase by 32 percent, making their story an even happier one. In a world where things so often seem to go wrong, from the spicing of a meal to the conduct of a war, Newman and Hotchner's tale is as tasty as their other wares -- and a pleasure to read.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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