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A.E. Hotchner: From Hemingway to Newman’s Salad Dressing

March 17, 1988 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ A.E. Hotchner traveled with Ernest Hemingway, has authored best-selling books and scripted plays. This is not the man one expects to find running a food business, but there he is, assuming the role of entrepreneur at the behest of another of his famous friends, Paul Newman.

Listening to Hotchner talk, one gets the feeling he is also incredulous - even after six years - to find himself in charge of Newman’s Own Inc., a $40 million-a-year business Hotchner calls ″this wacko food thing.″

And the author’s wife, Ursula, a former researcher at Time Inc., also seems a little bewildered to be overseeing the day-to-day operations of a company that manufactures salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, lemonade and popcorn.

So, how did these neophytes get into the business? By the persistence and persuasiveness of Paul Newman, the star of films such as ″The Hustler″ and ″Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid″ and the president of Newman’s Own.

They started the company in 1982, with a vinaigrette dressing.

″Newman was always into salad dressing,″ Hotchner recalled during a recent interview.

Hotchner said the actor had his own homemade dressing. When he visited friends, he took bottles of it with him. He gave it as Christmas presents.

One Christmas, he beseeched Hotchner, his longtime friend and neighbor in Westport, Conn., to help fill wine bottles with dressing, and when there was some left over, Newman got the notion of selling it.

″I did everything to ignore him,″ Hotchner said.

But Newman wouldn’t let go of the idea. While he went off to film ″The Verdict,″ he put his friend to work, setting up a salad dressing company.

″He would call from the movie set between takes: ’Hotch, how are we doing? You got a bottler?‴ the author recalled. ″He drove me nuts.″

With a $40,000 investment, they began to market the dressing locally in Connecticut.

″We didn’t know what we were doing,″ Hotchner admitted.

But after two months they began to get orders from major supermarket chains like Grand Union and A&P.

So they hired Advantage Food Marketing, a company on Long Island that found factories, set up a national distribution network and arranged for publicity.

The salad dressing, with a drawing of Newman smiling expansively on the label, became enormously successful. The Hotchners became corporate vice presidents.

Hotchner sounds like he still does not believe it all happened. ″It was 80 percent luck,″ he said.

The Newman aura was a major factor in their initial success, Hotchner admitted. But, he said, what has kept the company going since then is its insistence on quality.

″You can get acceptance because of Paul’s face on the label, but what’s in the bottle better be good,″ he said.

While quality was a major concern, profits weren’t.

‴Look, we don’t intend to be food tycoons, so let’s just give it all away,‴ Hotchner quoted Newman as saying. In the six years since Newman’s Own began, it has donated $15 million to charity and helped set up a camp for seriously ill children.

People expected Newman’s Own to come out with another dressing after the vinaigrette caught on, but as Mrs. Hotchner put it, ″We don’t do logical things.″

So, next came spaghetti sauce, followed by popcorn and most recently, lemonade. As its product base expanded, the company’s sales grew by 20 percent a year, Hotchner said.

Hotchner - the A.E. stands for Aaron Edward - is a 67-year-old St. Louis native who attended Washington University, became a lawyer but hated it and then went off to serve in World War II. After the war, he worked for Cosmopolitan magazine, and while on an assignment in Cuba in 1948, met Ernest Hemingway.

With Hemingway, Hotchner traveled to Paris, Madrid, Havana, Venice - ″not a bad way to be introduced to Venice,″ he now says - and other cities. He hunted with Hemingway, watched bullfights with him and drank with him.

Hemingway killed himself in 1961. Hotchner wrote of their friendship in his best-known work, ″Papa Hemingway.″

It was Hemingway who indirectly brought the future food makers together.

In 1956, Hotchner was asked to adapt a three-page Hemingway story, ″The Battler,″ for television. One of the actors in the drama was Paul Newman.

The two men became friends, and later, neighbors in Westport, an affluent suburb of New York City.

They owned boats and fished together, but ″Paul and I never got involved in anything over the years other than mischief until this wacko food thing came up,″ Hotchner said.

He sounds disparaging of the business and his own role in it, but he’s committed to it, fielding inquiries from Advantage Foods at 7:45 a.m. if necessary. He manages to keep his literary projects going, but said he sometimes feels like he’s a juggler who ″has one apple too many.″

Both Hotchner and his wife give a lot of credit for the success of Newman’s Own to Advantage Foods and David Kalman, a vice president at the marketing company.

″He was out there hustling,″ Mrs. Hotchner said. ″He believed in us.″

Kalman handles what Hotchner calls the nitty-gritty of the business, dealing with the factories and workers.

But there is still enough to keep the Hotchners busy. The night before the interview, Mrs. Hotchner returned from West Germany, where she met with one of the company’s international distributors.

Mrs. Hotchner, 44, a native of Cologne, West Germany, is in the Newman’s Own office in Westport almost every day, supervising a staff of five people. Although they began as amateurs, the Hotchners said they have learned plenty about the angles of running a food business. In the early going, for example, they discovered that if they discounted Newman’s Own products, supermarkets would pay faster and the company would have the cash to pay its own bills.

But the couple is well aware that unlike most business people, they have the luxury of nothing to lose.

″We don’t have to produce $3 million every month,″ Hotchner said. ″No heads are going to fall. No executives are going to be out on the street.″

″It’s not like anything else,″ he said. ″It’s mostly fun.″