For some years now, Newman had been giving his friends and family Christmas gifts of his own special salad dressing. He had developed this dressing because of his aversion to the bottled stuff, which was full of sugar and preservatives. He even took his dressing to restaurants where he insisted on using it.
One day, he had the brilliant idea to bottle the stuff and sell it to some local stores. Together with his friend Hotchner, they looked into starting the business. It was a lot more complicated than they had anticipated, but with a lot of luck and determination, they found a bottler and a distributor. As Hotchner once said, "There are three rules for running a business; fortunately, we don't know any of them."
Their ignorance led them to unmitigated success, and Newman's Own grew from salad dressing to pasta sauces to popcorn and lemonade. From an initial investment of $40,000, their basement operation has grown to a multi-million dollar business, with all the profits going to charity. Although Newman hates "noisy philanthropy" -- he thinks philanthropy should be anonymous -- he realizes that it is publicity that helps sell his products, and thus raise money for the charities.
Their most celebrated charity is the Hole in the Wall Gang camps for children with serious illnesses such as cancer and HIV. The idea has spread to 31 different states and 28 countries.
In 1989, Frank Sinatra joined the ranks of celebrities who tried to launch their own products and he, like many others, failed. He never turned a profit and went out of business three years later. Why did Newman succeed where others failed?
The answer is possibly a combination of image and taste. His products really taste better than everyone else's; they are made from fresh ingredients -- he insists on this, even when told it's not feasible -- and the proceeds go to charity. As for image ... well, to quote John Owen, a food critic and columnist:
"Maybe we formed inaccurate stereotypes, but it was difficult to imagine Sinatra in a 'Danger, Genius at Work' apron, slaving over a stove in his test kitchen, adding a pinch of oregano here and a dash of basil there.
"Paul Newman? Maybe. I've always suspected that his wife, Joanne Woodward, kept him pretty much in line. I wouldn't be surprised to hear he carries out the garbage and waters the plants when she's away on location."
Newman no-nonsense and can-do attitude convinced many others to join in his schemes, and his partners in charity include the Ford Motor Co., General Mills, Sea World, and Universal Studios, to name but a very few.
Many celebrities have been roped in as well: movie stars, sports personalities and even Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf who became a co-founder of Boggy Creek Camp in Florida. Newman's influence carries over, not only to friends, family and associates, but also to the counselors and even the children attending the camps.
One 14-year-old, Jennifer Masi, was the moving force for Boggy Creek. Upon returning from the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, she thought a similar camp should be built near her home in Fort Lauderdale. She lobbied her neighbor, David Horvitz, vice-president of WLD Enterprises, telling him, "You're rich, Mr. Horvitz, you could get us started."
Horvitz gave her $500,000, and the project took off. Unfortunately, Jennifer did not survive her cancer, but the camp was built to serve hundreds of other children.
With advances in medicine, the percentage of cures and survival has switched from 30 percent when the camps first started to 70 percent today.
Some of those survivors are now counselors at the camps and some counselors, who are all college students, changed their majors because of their summer experience with sick children. One of them, who had been a media major, decided to switch to medicine and become a pediatric oncologist.
It is amazing what two people with no business sense and a wicked sense of humor can do.
The book includes a chronology of events from the initial inspiration in December 1980 to the present day, a list of countries and states where the camps operate, the disease groups served, and letters from grateful campers and parents. There are also letters of appreciation from consumers that sound as wacky as Newman's own sense of humor. Are they real letters? This is one example:
I am a 67-year-old Nun (Sister of Mercy) who has been in love with you for about 30 years, although I must admit to a brief infatuation with Dan Rather.
I'm writing to ask you to consider a donation from the proceeds from your delicious dressings, sauces, and popcorn to our high school in Savannah, GA -- Saint Vincent's Academy.
I'll be praying and awaiting your positive response. I know you won't cut me off with nothing (the way Dan did Connie)!"
This book is a quick, funny and inspiring read, the perfect gift. I'd add a couple of bottles of Newman's Own dressings and sauces as well.
("Shameless Exploitation" by Paul Newman and A. E. Hotchner, Doubleday, $23.95, 253 pages.)