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Sara Lee: Queen of the Freezer Case : Personalities: Now it can be told--yes, there is a Sara Lee. But the cheesecake was her father's idea.

August 30, 1990|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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.

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