“That’s the real Sara Lee,” says the supermarket employee stationed to herd shoppers toward the Sara Lee freezer case.
A woman passing by stops short. “Oh my goodness, in person,” she says. Her son shrugs.
“I didn’t even know there was a Sara Lee,” one man says.
Sara Lee, in Los Angeles making an in-store appearance at a local Ralph’s, smiles politely, shaking hands and signing autographs for the crowd that has gathered around her.
“She’s so young,” says a woman in bug-look sunglasses. “I expected to see someone old, you know, like the See’s grandmother.”
“My father started Sara Lee bakeries,” Sara Lee explains. “He named the company after me when I was a little girl.”
A middle-aged man, dressed in shorts, a polo shirt and a fishing hat, the kind George Bush wears on working vacations, picks up a sample package of Sara Lee chocolate mousse. He tastes it and tells Sara Lee, “It’s delicious, but my cholesterol is high.”
“This is our new light line,” Sara Lee tells him. “It’s lower in fat and lower in cholesterol.”
“Is it really low in calories?” asks the man’s wife suspiciously. Then, to her husband, “She definitely has an accent.”
“What’s Sara Lee’s last name?” a man asks.
“Sara Lee.” Her public relations handler smiles.
“No, her last name,” the man says.
“Sara Lee,” the handler says again. “It’s like Cher . . . and Elvis.”
“Oh,” the man says and walks away.
“She’s darling , Sara Lee,” a woman says to one of the Ralph’s employees. “I’m from Chicago, you know, and the Sara Lee name is associated with Chicago.” Then, to her husband, “OK, we’ve got the beer, what else do we need?”
There was a time when Sara Lee, the person, tried to ignore Sara Lee, the company. “When I was growing up,” she says, “I didn’t let anybody say who I was. Not because I wasn’t proud, but because I felt I hadn’t done anything. My dad did everything--it was just my name.”
Her dad, Charles Lubin, named his original cream cheesecake after his daughter in 1949 when she was 9 years old. It was a cheesecake designed to be sold in supermarkets instead of neighborhood bakeries. It was a cheesecake that changed the world--at least on lonely Saturday nights.
For a lot of people, a Sara Lee frozen cream cheesecake or all-butter pound cake is the ultimate comfort food. Post-breakup food. Food for the blues. Food that’s soothed the hearts of the dateless for two generations. Some people don’t even wait for the cake to thaw.
For Sara Lee, the famous cream cheesecake was her childhood breakfast food--what dad brought home from the office. And for a short period growing up, Sara Lee was almost as devoted to the company as her father.
“When dad went to build his new plant, I was there every day,” she says. “He’d show me all the new machines. During the summer, when I was 13 or 14, I had wonderful jobs there--filing sales checks, and my favorite, answering the switchboard. I got to hear who was mad at whom.”
But it wasn’t easy being Sara Lee.
“People would tease me,” she says. “I never wore any makeup, so it was, ‘Sara Lee can’t afford lipstick,’ little things that at that age you don’t want to deal with. You don’t want to be any different than anybody else.”
She’s grateful that by the time the company came out with that famous double-negative slogan, “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee,” she was out of puberty. “At that point I was old enough to deal with it,” she says. “I feel like I’ve never been the kind of person that everybody has liked, so for me it was like hearing any other ad.
“I distanced myself pretty well from the company for a while,” she says. “I guess I depersonalized it. When I was married to my first husband we lived in Boston and I really kept my own identity. The company knew not to involve me. I was concerned for my children and I wanted my privacy. My dad was a little miffed at that.
“I remember growing up, whenever we went out to eat, he’d want to go in the kitchen and see who the chef was, and the baker. And he’d want me to go with him. That way he’d be able to say, ‘This is Sara Lee.’ But I would hate it. A lot of times I wouldn’t go, but then he’d bring the chef out. I was so mortified.
“But as the years went on, it really became sort of insignificant. It’s funny, because at the time I didn’t realize that I was gaining knowledge. My dad had an incredible palate. I remember he’d taste something and say, ‘This has too much lemon,’ or, ‘This has too much salt,’ where a lot of people would just think ‘Oh, I like this,’ or, ‘I don’t.’ I learned to analyze things, to figure out why I liked something.
“When you’re older and something’s familiar it’s easier to understand and to like.”
It was the death of Sara Lee’s father that got her involved in the company again. Her family had been asked to attend a tribute to her father at the company’s annual meeting. “The (former) president of the bakery came and sat down with us at lunch,” she says. “He loved my dad--he even kept a picture of my dad behind his desk.
“Anyway, he was concerned that there was a loss of family without my dad. I mean, even though my dad was retired, he’d go through the plant and visit with people. So when I was asked to get involved, I couldn’t say no.”
What she said yes to was a starring role in Sara Lee TV commercials.
“I’d never given a speech, I’d never stood up in front of crowds, I’d never sold anything,” she says. “But I knew I could do it. Nothing has intimidated me.
“It’s sad because my dad would just love to know how much I’m doing,” she says. “But I couldn’t have done this with him around. He was a very strong man. He would have told me what I was doing right and wrong and how to do it. There was always a better way as far as he was concerned. That’s why he was successful.
“It’s funny,” she says, “even as a young child I was mathematically oriented and business-minded. When my dad was selling the company my mother really thought I could run the company, but in those days it never was considered that a woman would do anything. And then I got married very early so I never got to pursue it.”
Like a lot of other women of her generation, Sara Lee spent most of her life playing the role of housewife and mom. Ten years ago, when she separated from her first husband she went through a period of transition. She went to work for Chicago cooking personality Abby Mandel (“I basically was her dishwasher,” she says), volunteered time to charity, went back to school and eventually remarried. She now lives in New York.
This spring she started visiting supermarkets around the country. She’s found that what most people want to talk to her about is their diets. Over and over she hears the stories:
“I love your stuff but I can’t eat sugar anymore.”
“I can sit down with a strawberry cheesecake and eat the whole thing in one sitting, but now I take the Slim-Fast and buy this low-cal dressing for my vegetables. Oh, and I have to eat those rice crisps.”
In Los Angeles, Sara Lee does a little impromptu market research and asks a little girl, “What would you like us to make? Ice cream? Pizza?” Before the girl answers her mother says, “She likes things with no fat in them.”
What’s a company known and loved for making America’s favorite junk food supposed to do? Come out with a low-calorie, low-sodium line, that’s what.
“You can eat this,” Sara Lee tells the people she meets. “The sodium’s down, the cholesterol’s down. And we’ve got these single-size servings, now. What we say is don’t eat tons of cake, eat in moderation.”
A lot of the people she talks to are skeptical.
“How many calories is this compared to Weight Watchers?” asks one woman who eyes Sara Lee’s trim figure jealously.
“It’s lower in calories and definitely better in taste,” Sara Lee says.
The woman pats Sara Lee’s arm and tells her, “It’s good to work for a company that you like.”
But Sara Lee does a lot of convincing. “I know we have a good product,” she says. “It was tough. We couldn’t just take out the sugar because people would complain about the taste. And we didn’t want to use Nutrisweet or any of the other artificial sweeteners. We didn’t use any artificial ingredients.”
There was, of course, another “light” line of Sara Lee products, one that got the company into trouble last year. The attorneys general from nine states sued Sara Lee Corporation for implying that its “Light Classics” group of cheesecakes was less fattening than the company’s other products. Though the company admitted no wrongdoing, it decided not to fight the suit.
“At that point there was no real government standard for the word ‘light,’ ” Sara Lee says. “When we came out with that line, we were talking about light in texture. But it got to be a whole mess and we had to take the products off the market. Now there is a standard; light means one-third less calories than a comparable product. There’s no problem with our new line.”
These days, Sara Lee is a zealous label reader. “Look at this,” she says, picking up a competitor’s New York-style cheesecake. “It says 200 calories per serving, but it’s two servings.” The package is the same size as a Sara Lee Light single-serving. “I hate that when they trick you.”
Finally, the question must be asked: Did Sara Lee ever eat a Sara Lee cheesecake when she was feeling depressed?
She pauses and then repeats the question to herself. “I wouldn’t have eaten cheesecake . . . " Her voice trails off. Maybe she prefers the Sara Lee chocolate cake? The banana cake? The fudge brownies? The pecan all-butter coffee cake?
“No,” she finally says. “I’d like to tell you that I go straight for a Sara Lee product, but I can’t. But if something happens and I’m upset, I do go straight to the kitchen. And it’s usually for something sweet.”