Published: February 01. 2013 2:00AM
Written by: Stephanie Trotter
Tabloid headlines are littered with the offspring of Hollywood’s A-list who self-destruct at every turn. A bit harder to find are stories of those who humbly clear their own path and achieve success along the way. Such a woman will return to her family’s roots and visit Greenville this month.
Nell Newman plans to help Upstate Forever celebrate 15 years of environmental stewardship at the group’s annual luncheon on Feb. 21.
The 53-year-old’s passion and life-story runs far beyond her folks’ Oscars and her mom’s Greenville High diploma. As a young adult, Nell borrowed $15,000 from her “Pop” to explore organic food possibilities. The result is Newman’s Own Organics, a pacesetter in the $26 billion niche organic foods industry.
Yet like her dad, helping nonprofits is Nell’s bottom line. The shy, yet funny, food pioneer shared a lovely morning with TALK, laughing over the future of Twinkies, her love of surfing and what it’s like growing up the daughter of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
TALK Greenville: So you’re coming to celebrate Upstate Forever’s 15th birthday. How important are such groups?
Nell Newman: Having a group keeping their eyes open to land use and environmental issues is so important. It takes a lot of energy to keep an eye on what’s going on in one’s backyard.
TG: We know your folks are philanthropic minded. When did you become environmentally minded?
NN: Mine was an early wake up call. When I was really little, I liked birds because I couldn’t fly. My favorite were birds of prey. I discovered my favorite bird of prey, the peregrine falcon, was extinct east of the Mississippi because of something called DDT that was sprayed on our food. I was 8 years old. It was a frightening concept that I may never see one because they were potentially going to be extinct.
TG: Did your folks jump on board?
NN: My mom was an early environmentalist. She was recycling and making us eat healthy food way back when nobody else was doing it.
TG: Yet when your dad got Newman’s Own going with popcorn and salad dressing, you had to trick him into adding an organic line. You cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner from organic products, but didn’t tell him until after he’d finished the meal.
NN: My dad liked to pull jokes and pull pranks on people. It was sort of a prank, really.
TG: It opened his eyes to how tasty organic food was and he saw the possibilities.
NN: Yes, he saw the potential. It was my bugging him that got him to do it. Dad said, “Fine! I’ll pay you each $15,000 to spend a year educating yourself about the market.” So we worked as hard as we could to try and figure out what areas we might be able to go into. My partner, Pete, and I were neophytes; we didn’t know anything.
TG: You came back with pretzels, and now Newman’s Own Organics is celebrating 20 years. You’re a stand-alone company with 160 products. You must be proud.
NN: When the first year was done, it was immensely satisfying because they all thought we were going to fail. The old dad and his group of all white guys (laughing)! I remember his business partner putting his arm around me, whispering in my ear, “Maybe we could just buy you a farm!” You know? I was more than proud.
TG: You’ve said charity and humility were the best lessons your parents taught you. Your mom grew up in Georgia and Greenville. Did she teach you Southern ways? Does she come across as a Southern Lady?
NN: You know, that’s an interesting question. I think I always marveled at her accent coming out when she talked to her mother on the phone. That was always a little reminder of her heritage, to hear that “Mom-ma!” (with a heavy accent). Of course, she’s very polite and a great conversationalist. And I had several aunts, in quotation marks, that I got to spend time with, who would remind me as a teen, “Never say the word ‘I’ in polite conversation.”
TG: You’re the head chef in the Newman clan. Did your mom teach you to cook?
NN: She loved Southern cooking. That was something she taught me. We cooked all sorts of things. I remember when I was 5, trying to explain what my favorite cake was. We then spent all day making a pound cake. And when we were finished, I said, “That’s not it!” What I really wanted was an angel food cake. I learned to make a very good angel food cake.
TG: Do you ever eat non-organic food?
(laughing) I do eat it. It’s not usually an indulgence, but a necessity, like when I’m traveling. I’m a flexitarian. I must say, when Hostess went down the tubes, I thought I can never have another Sno Ball!
TG: We’ll miss them.
NN: Yes! I maybe buy a Sno Ball once every four years. I like Twinkies and I like Sno Balls. I actually had a moment thinking, do I go out and go look for some?
TG: On the serious side. You’ve achieved great business success and personal happiness living with your husband in Santa Cruz, Calif. Is it hard still being introduced as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s daughter?
NN: You know, it’s a small town and most people already know me, so it doesn’t happen very much here. But ehhh, ya’ know? I’ve gotten used to it. But in my life, growing up it was strange experience, especially when you are a kid.
TG: You met your husband, Gary Irving, through your love of surfing. Have you ever surfed in the Carolinas? Or visited Greenville?
NN: No. Do I need to bring my surfboard with me? Unfortunately, I only remember driving through (Greenville) once, going down to Atlanta to see relatives. Everybody sort of went off in different directions and I had relatives in Atlanta. Mom lived in more than one place. She went to school in Greenville and then went to college at LSU. And then she and my dad traveled a lot.
TG: Upstate Forever is honored you’re coming. Your company is focused on philanthropic support and giving, much like your dad’s.
NN: Pop always used to say, “If people knew how good it felt to give their money away, they wouldn’t wait until they died!” Giving is the reason I wanted to do it (start Newman’s Own Organics). I started to follow in his footsteps, and I’d been running a small nonprofit, so I knew how hard it was to raise money. I thought, why not do things a little differently? Why not do an organic product and make it so you’re supporting another layer.
TG: We can’t wait to hear more when you get here. Safe travels.