Nell Newman laughs as she unlocks the door of a 1993 Subaru Turbo Legacy wagon, her beloved beach car. "I took my surfboard out to make room for you," she says, brushing sand off the passenger seat. The 42-year-old founder of Newman's Own Organics: The Second Generation starts the motor, swerves onto Soquel Drive, and heads for Carried Away. It's her favorite lunch-time hangout in this coastal town of Aptos, 60 miles south of San Francisco.
Over potato and beet salads, Nell revisits her path toward the 1993 premiere of her organic-snack-foods sequel to Newman's Own, Inc. That's the Connecticut-based empire of salsas, salad dressings, and other savories introduced by her father, Paul, in 1982.
"It started with birds, when I was about 10," Nell says. "I loved birds?maybe because they could fly and I couldn't." Horrified that the peregrine falcon was almost extinct because of DDT effects, she began thinking about what people eat and absorb. That led her to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a B.A. in human ecology. At this special school, students pick diverse subjects from architecture to science, but all courses are taught as social, biological, and technological interrelationships.
Interested in food since childhood, Nell focused on how our sustenance is grown and processed. "I learned to cook from my mom," she says, of Joanne Woodward, the highly acclaimed actress. "We made lollipops and molasses pulled taffy when I was little."
Maybe that explains the sweet-tooth leanings for Newman's Own Organics: chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, and the deliciously amusing Fig Newmans. But Nell's athletic looks speak favorably for organic snacks. ("Organic" products are made with ingredients from producers who have not used artificial fertilizers or pesticides for at least three years.)
Still nature-oriented, Nell lives simply on an unassuming residential street in Santa Cruz, about a half-mile from the ocean and a 15-minute drive from her Aptos office. Drought-resistant plantings thrive in front of her robin's-egg blue 1940s cottage. Blossoming fruit trees and ripening vegetables glisten in the California sun outside her curtainless back windows. Compost pails stay at the ready in her creamy yellow kitchen.
A prolific cook, Nell spends a lot of time in this room. On this afternoon, her nimble fingers fold grated dark chocolate-orange bars (Newman's Own Organics, of course) into snowy peaks of egg whites. While her recipe for Dad's Favorite Chocolate Angel Food Cake bakes, she says that pleasing his taste buds was important to launching her company.
"I'd had this harebrained idea about organics for my dad's business," she says. So, at the family's Connecticut home?where she'd grown up fishing in the Aspetuck River out back and throwing rotting apples at reporters intruding on her childhood ("Wouldn't you?" she asks)?Nell prepared the 1992 Thanksgiving feast. Using only organically grown foods, she got her father's attention. "He agreed to fund a year's research and told me to develop a plan," she says.
She tapped friend Peter Meehan for his business background, and the two hit the road. "We went to natural-food trade shows, figured out what products people would buy, and lined up manufacturers," Nell says. Organics' first product was pretzels?"easy to make, and one of Dad's favorite snacks."
Convinced, the patriarch funded his daughter's start-up costs, including the initial salaries. "Newman's Own Organics has paid him back," Nell says, happily.
Today, Peter directs sales, marketing, and product development. Nell's tongue-in-cheek business card reads, "Director/Daughter." She basically helps create new products and remains the chief spokesperson.
But Nell doesn't speak about her own generosity," Peter says. "Her mother is so generous, and her dad's philanthropy is well known. Nell gets it from them." Organic or not, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree," he says.
Like Newman's Own, Newman's Own Organics donates all after-tax profits to charity. It has bestowed $2 million since 1994, its first full year of business. Together,the companies have gifted well over $100 million. Recipients include wildlife, organic-farming, and environmental causes. "I found out I like giving money away a lot more than asking for it," Nell says.
She should know. Before starting Newman's Own Organics, she raised funds for the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary on the Big Sur coast. She also was executive director ("that means fund-raiser," she says) for the Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group. With Newman's Own Organics and its charity, Nell has combined her altruistic interests.
She also has cleverly leveraged the power of her family name. Who wouldn't be drawn to the packaging of her company's products? In the farm-fashion motif of Grant Wood's American Gothic painting, Nell and "Pa" mischievously smile from grocery store shelves, enticing shoppers to sample their homey, tasty treats.
But the real Nell does not go around in an austere black dress and prim apron. At least not this afternoon. The surfboard has resumed its place in her Subaru, and she zips the beachmobile into a nook on a seaside cliff. She pares down to her blue-and-white Patagonia bikini, works her way into a wet suit, and bands her silky hair into a tidy knot. She hoists her board, grabs her surfing helmet, and hollers, "Gotta go." She vanishes down the stairs to the beach. On those high-rolling Pacific blue waves, maybe Nell Newman can fly.