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In Memoriam: Paul Newman (1925-2008)
In Pursuit of the Common Good
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What a fun book! Remember when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were perched on a precipitous cliff and faced with jail-time or jump-time? Sundance said, "I can't jump. I can't swim." Butch said, "You damn fool! The jump will probably kill you!" Off they jumped and screamed all the way down to the rushing water. And they escaped. What luck! This cinematic jump matched the results of the jump ol' PL and Hotch were to take into the food business. The chances of surviving both endeavors were about equal, and the results were equally successful. And the two buddies were to make the jump over and over again: in the salad dressing business, the popcorn business, the spaghetti sauce business, and the Hole in the Wall Camps, among other things. These are "the madcap business adventures of the truly oddest couple" as the cover tells us.
Quotes like this one before Chapter 1 are sprinkled throughout the book, just as they must plaster the walls of the beach umbrella office where PL and Hotch hold forth discussing business plans over a hot game of ping-pong.
In the queer mess of human destiny the determining factor is Luck. For every important place in life there are many men of fairly equal capacities. Among them Luck divides who shall accomplish the great work, who shall be crowned with laurel, and who shall fall back in obscurity and silence. -- William Woodward
How did Newman's Own Dressing begin? You don't want to know, but they tell us anyway.
[page 3, 4] Paul Newman, known to his friends as ol' PL or Calezzo de Wesso (Bonehead), had asked his buddy A. E. Hotchner (Hotch), sometimes called Sawtooth, to help him with a Christmas project that he was assembling in his basement, which wasn't a basement in the usual sense. There were crusty stones, a dirt floor, crumbling cement, and overhead timbers covered with active cobwebs. Also three long since vacated horse stalls, but the unmistakable aroma of horses remained. There were desiccated manure fragments here and there, and there was evidence that certain field animals were still occupying the premises. A very picturesque place in which to mix salad dressing.
The project was to distribute some of PL's salad dressing to those houses they sing carols in front of on Christmas Eve. PL's salad dressing was made with all natural ingredients and contained none of the "sugar, artificial coloring, chemical preservatives, gums, and God knows what" of the mass-market salad dressings of the time. Hotch says about Paul, "He was almost crazed as he stirred the dressing with the wooden paddle. There's a river that runs alongside his house, and the paddle most certainly came from his canoe. It was his notion that the olive oil and vinegar had a sort of hygienic effect so that one didn't have to wash anything thoroughly." People came to the door of barn's basement from time to time as they worked.
[page 5] But they had the good sense to stop at the door. The smell of vintage horse piss and mold had now commingled with the aroma of Budweiser and the salad dressing ingredients, a combination that did not exactly beckon.
After Christmas PL suggested to Hotch that they bottle the leftover salad dressing in the tub and hustle the bottles “into upscale local food stores, make a buck, and go fishing." Hotch, "a refugee from law school" put the quietus on that idea. So PL decided they'd go the whole route, take out insurance, create a label, and get a bona fide bottler, and see if the stuff would sell.
There are three rules for running a business; fortunately, we don't know any of them. — A. E. Hotchner to Monica Lewinsky at a Miss America Pageant.
There's a salubrious effect to not knowing the rules, you can think of practical ways of doing things that those who know the rules would never consider! And this is what PL and Hotch did time and time again. And as Luck would have it: each time, they succeeded exceptionally well. They did do one thing that is a rule around Bobby Jeaux's Kitchen where I hang out: taste everything at every step of the process. They did this with their salad dressing while the bottler was trying to follow their recipe. They did this with their spaghetti sauce, with their popcorn, etc. Compare their attitude to Frank Sinatra's attitude about his spaghetti sauce, "I'll let the experts decide." Guess whose spaghetti sold at most one bottle to souvenir collectors? And whose sauce is still flying off shelves into baskets and cooking pots?
They even innovated a way of handling money that was unique in the food business. In stead of letting a broker get the money, take a cut, and send the rest to them. They required direct payment from the food outlets in ten days and paid their bottler in 20 days. Then they paid the broker a commission. Thus, they always had money to pay their bottler without having to borrow or dip into their capital. And everyone was happy.
They insisted on all natural ingredients, no gums or preservatives. The chemists told them this was impossible. But no one used olive oil in their mass-produced dressings, so they had the chemists test their unique product for longevity and there was Luck rearing her beautiful head again: the oil and vinegar created a natural preservative. Then they were told that if fresh onion and garlic were added, it would spoil the dressing in short order, so they acquiesced, to their dismay. Later, they found the dried garlic and onion added a metallic taste they didn't like, so they insisted on the bottler finding a way to do it. By marinating the fresh garlic and onion for two weeks in the vinegar, they were able to switch to all fresh ingredients! Luck!
They wanted to sell only locally, but the Robinson-Patman Act prevented them from doing so as it would constitute discrimination, so they were required to sell to the A&P and other large distributors. Luck! They were forced by federal law to get big! The next curve the world threw them, they hit out of the park. Here's the play-by-play:
[page 36] "If your dressing is really good," Stew said, "you've got a chance at it since you'll sell the first bottle because your face is on the label."
"Whoa!" Paul said. "My face is on the label?"
"Of course. How else do you get their attention? You said you weren't going to advertise, so how will the customer know it's you?"
"It'll say Newman's Own."
"For all they know, that could be Seymour Newman from Newark, New Jersey. You will not be able to sell bottle one unless your face is on the label, that's for sure."
"My face on a bottle of salad dressing? Not a chance in hell."
Well, PL and Hotch had an executive meeting on the Caca de Toro, "mock fishing" they called it, "not knowing which would sink firstthe boat or the business." They debated the "tacky suggestion" that Paul put his face on the label.
[page 37] Even though we weren't flushed with expectation, if it was necessary to do that in order to float the venture, it would be a new low in exploitation. Paul felt, "Put my face on the windshield of a Mercedes-Benz or a Volvo maybe . . . but salad dressing?" . . .
"You know, there could be a kind of justice here, Hotch. I go on television all the time to hustle my films. TV gets me and my time for free, and the film gets exposure for free — and circular exploitation, so to speak. Now then, if we were to go the lowest of the low road and plaster my face on a bottle of oil and vinegar just to line our pockets, it would stink. But to go the low road to get to the high road — shameless exploitation for charity, for the common good — now there's an idea worth the hustle, a reciprocal trade agreement."
This is a good time to note the ambiguity in the title. "Shameless exploitation" is usually always used to refer to people who exploit some resource for personal gain, feeling no shame about the possible harm done to others. Paul had turned the phrase 180 degrees around by use of the same phrase to refer to him and Hotch who would exploit their salad dressing for gain, but would feel no shame about it because of the good it will do for others. Thus they came up with the idea of donating all their profits of the venture to charity, and the rest is history, and spaghetti sauce, and popcorn, and ice cream, and who knows what else will be next.
The availability of large amounts of profit from the business brought to birth another idea in ol' PL's mind: a camp devoted to terminally ill children who were otherwise barred from camps and relegated to spending the remainder of their days in a cold, antiseptic, joyless hospital environment. He wanted a camp built like a place Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would have had out West. Once more, the obstacles mounted faster than a snow drift in a blizzard, but PL and Hotch got the first Hole in the Wall Camp built in the course of single year. Since then, similar camps have been built in Florida, Ireland, France, California, Africa, and no doubt many other places as of today.
We have been buying Newman's Own Salad dressing, the original oil and vinegar and using it solely for one recipe, which we call Artichoke Flowers. We had originally been using Wishbone, but after the first time we tried the recipe with Newman's Own, we never went back. We keep Wishbone Italian dressing in the fridge for our Creole tomatoes in June, and it makes a great special dressing when thoroughly mixed half-and-half with Blue Plate Mayonnaise. We tried this only once with Newman's Own salad dressing and we ended up throwing away the tomatoes and special sauce. The combination of dressing and mayo were not miscible and the result tasted horribly. On the other hand we keep our Newman's Own in our cabinet readily available for our artichoke dish. Those of you who know about New Orleans' stuffed artichokes, but find the process of making them too difficult and time-consuming, should know that Artichoke Flowers, created in Bobby Jeaux's Kitchen, is better tasting and barely takes fifteen minutes of preparation and about an hour total time. I usually am typing at my keyboard for the 45 minutes while the chokes are boiling. We usually have this for supper a couple of times a week except in those few weeks of the year when fresh artichokes are not available.
As I said in the beginning, this is a fun book. The story about ol' PL's first business venture in college is sure to make you laugh out loud. But it is more than just a fun book. It is a serious book which will benefit anyone in the food business if they will read it. Are you the owner or high executive of a food business? If so, ask yourself if you ever eat the foods your business delivers. If not, why not? And how would you change those foods so they would taste good and nutritious to you? Here's a story of two men, two outsiders, who did exactly that to your business. Were you blind-sided by the common sense approach to the food business two cantankerous outsiders took and how wildly successful they were? If the answer is Yes, you must read this book, if for nothing but self-protection.
If you would like to see A. E. Hotchner in action, watch this fine Biography: “Hemingway: Wrestling with Life” (2005) available on NetFlix. He was a good friend of Ernest and speaks about him in several places in the film.
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