For decades, Heinz has dominated the ketchup market. And while the brand has introduced balsamic vinegar and chili spice versions, it’s the classic variety that dominates kitchen tables and children’s palates around the world. But as Jennifer Wells reveals in her new Star Dispatches ebook, Ketchup’s Big Moment: Our Top Condiment Goes Upscale , the kiddification of ketchup is now under serious assault, with much smaller companies following the lead of mustard and introducing high-end, gourmet-friendly varieties. Is the threat to Heinz, which is exiting Leamington, Ont., after a century of making ketchup there, a serious one? Is the red stuff going the way of Grey Poupon? In this excerpt, Wells explores attempts to gentrify the ubiquitous tomato-based sauce. Her entire ebook is available through http://www.stardispatches.com.
“To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.” — H. J. Heinz
“It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers.” — Malcolm Gladwell
At Scheffler’s Delicatessen & Cheese shop in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, Katarina Gounalakis is unpacking her latest gourmet delivery from Stonewall Kitchen. The little preserve company that could, Stonewall grew from a homespun enterprise selling jam at a farmer’s market to a Martha Stewart-esque emporium of specialty foods, tableware, gifts and even a cooking school in York, Maine.
Stonewall’s new product offerings, launched in January, trumpeted a big trend for 2014 — the truffle, as in truffle spread (try it on crostini, the foodie company advises), truffle aioli and truffle marinara sauce.
Gounalakis unpacks her order of the marinara and, in a breakthrough moment in the condiment world, a few ample-sized jars of truffle ketchup. She weighs the ketchup in her hand, noting that this is the product’s debut on Scheffler’s shelves. The condiment, in which an infusion of white truffle joins a blend of vine-ripened California tomatoes, red bell peppers, garlic, sugar and vinegar, is all dressed up in a glass jar looking very, shall we say, artisanal, the label seemingly hand-written to emphasize the personally-crafted, small-batch look of the brand.
It seems so radical. The ketchup we know is synthetically smooth and very red (tending toward fire engine on the Pantone scale) and sweet and slightly acidic and often squeezed out of large plastic bottles by dexterous small hands as an ineluctable accompaniment to hot dogs (sacrilege in some quarters — we hear you, Chicago), hamburgers (naturally), French fries (except for the frites-dipped-in-mayo brigade), grilled cheese, eggs, cottage cheese (memories of Richard Nixon) and so forth.
Through the decades-long growth of the foodie movement, ketchup has seemed resistant to the push to prestige, to the belief that for every mainstream condiment there are a dozen refinements and line extensions just waiting to be customized for the haut monde. Or maybe just regular folk.
At 700 square feet, Scheffler’s is tiny, but its very tininess makes it a prime place to study the gourmet world. Consider the olive oils. Along one wall marches a brace of extra-virgin oils, cold-pressed and single-sourced and assigned the attributes of fine wines: full-bodied, light yet fruity, smooth pepper finish, notes of citrus. The Château d’Estoublon extra-virgin from France practically winks from the shelf, bottled as it is like a couple quarts of Chanel with a hefty glass perfume bottle-type stopper.
There are vinegars — in the category of whites, the lavender creation by L’Olivier, a company founded in a “quaint shop of the old Marais quarter in Paris” in 1822, is especially pretty with its lavender stem seemingly blossoming from the bottle bottom. The balsamics, as one would expect, are robustly represented here by the likes of Leonardi’s Riserva Ginepro, aged 16 years, and numerous of-the-moment offerings from the Mussini line, including baby seven-year balsamics and flavoured varieties shot through with blood orange and hazelnut.
And there are mustards — Scheffler’s oeuvre is modest, but still, there’s the Hot and Horseradishy from Toronto deli Caplansky’s, Stonewall Kitchen’s vivid Ballpark (Caplansky’s Classic Ballpark is on offer, too), the Maille mustards with their regal black and gold labels, five offerings from Inglehoffer, including an applewood-smoked bacon version, Dijons from Grey Poupon, with their très French tricolour lids, and the visual pièce de résistance, Pommery’s Moutarde Royale au Cognac, a gold wax seal dripping alluringly down its black crockery sides.
As for ketchup: nada. Until Stonewall’s truffle interpretation is placed upon the shelf, that is, priced at $10.99. (Well, there was an earlier offering from Jamie Oliver’s defunct JME, says Katrina, a curried ketchup that did not sell.)
Odysseas Gounalakis, Katarina’s father, purchased Scheffler’s in 1992 when it was known as a German deli with a black forest ham and Limburger reputation. Odysseas was more a 36-month prosciutto di Parma man or, say, a truffle-veined triple-crème Brie guy.
Fortuitously, restaurants and gourmet magazines started trumpeting “charcuterie” as if it were some long-buried treasure, like a truffle. “All of a sudden the business changed and exploded,” Odysseas exclaims, as if he still can’t believe his good fortune.
Educating the prosciutto palate meant educating the consumer’s pocketbook too. As with cheeses. As with the seemingly endless offerings of roasted garlic and pear-type preserves now marketed as delectable accompaniments to a meat and cheese board. Spend $30 on a chunk of cheese and make it really sing by adding a $10 preserve, why don’t you.
Still, Odysseas, who sports a trim goatee and the type of squared glasses an architect might wear, imagined there would be a limit as to how far the consumer is willing to go in the upscaling of taste. Take pickles. Could a food possibly be cheaper? Yet Odysseas has been blown away by pickles. He retrieves a jar of McClure’s from the shelf — a U.S dill from two brothers in the business for under a decade. “I would never have imagined that people would spend $10 for pickles, yet they do,” he says. The jar looks hefty in his hand, with an artful black and white skyline label. “I can never keep enough in stock.” How does he explain it? “It’s the crunchiness, the freshness. For me it was what I was looking for in a pickle. And I hate pickles.”
So let’s say Odysseas is a taste hunter.
He thinks it may have been four years ago, at the internationally renowned food fair in Parma, Italy, when he first tasted a ketchup-balsamic vinegar mash-up, which instantly played as a “wow” upon the tongue, an “awesome” on the palate. Such an obvious combination of flavours — how can you not think of fish and chips, he asks. So true.
Still, he remained “a little bit shy” on the ketchup front. He wondered if the red stuff was ready to break into the gourmet world, poised to join the mustard ranks, where a company like Stonewall has 13 offerings, including Blue Cheese Herb, Maine Maple Champagne and Bourbon Molasses.
It was at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last June that he came upon Stonewall’s truffle ketchup. “I tasted it and I said mmmmm,” he recalls. “It was awesome.”
Anything truffle speaks luxe; it’s the food lover’s equivalent of the bespoke suit. When Odysseas woos a customer, slicing a cheese wire through a round of that truffled triple-crème, he draws the halves apart with the care of an auctioneer handling a Ming vase. But the truffle also carries a heady essence all out of proportion to its little fungal self. “You either love it or you don’t.”
Odysseas has no idea how the truffle ketchup is going to fare with his clientele. But he remembers the days when salt came in a box marked Windsor and was neither pink nor smoky nor Himalayan, and when his advocacy of sun-dried tomatoes caused people to look at him “like I was really weird.”
The Stonewall comestibles are packaged in wide-mouthed glass jars and are thus “spoonable.” This is a key point of class differentiation. One spoons or scoops a fine food accessory in measured dollops. One does not spray one’s meal with the velocity of a fire hose, as might a ketchup-wielding four-year-old trying to disguise the taste of broccoli.
Yet this is where our minds go. To moguls of ketchup. To mass market. To a condiment, as New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell theorized a decade ago, that just might be resistant to taste segmentation. Gladwell scrutinized the upscaling of mustard, and then posited that such condiment differentiation might not apply to ketchup. The case of ketchup, the magazine concluded with its trademark sagacity, was a conundrum.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room — it is big, it is brash, it is a category killer and, at least at the time of Gladwell’s writing, seemingly resistant to all comers. It is this that keeps Odysseas on the fence where ketchup is concerned. Odysseas is a wise man. He speaks for a country, or a continent. Or maybe the world. “When my head comes to ketchup,” he says, “it’s always Heinz.”
Ballpark mustard. Xanthic. Eyeball-peeling. An accompaniment to hot dogs. French’s.
When Malcolm Gladwell penned “The Ketchup Conundrum” for the New Yorker in 2004, he used mustard as his baseline study, figuring if someone could successfully disrupt the dominance of French’s — and they did — then perhaps this same trick, this “magic,” could be worked with ketchup. As in, taking on that behemoth purveyor of the red stuff. As in — need we spell it out? — Heinz.
In his thinky way, Gladwell documented the strategic march on French’s market dominance by Grey Poupon, which aimed to capitalize on its less-yellow, less-tangy, seedier-textured condiment by repackaging it in a comely glass jar “with an enamelled label and enough of a whiff of Frenchness to make it seem as if it were still being made in Europe.” (It was made in Connecticut.) Poor French’s. “It came in a plastic bottle,” wrote Gladwell, as if sorry to have to say so. “People used it on hot dogs and bologna.”
Gladwell didn’t mention the tricolour pot lids, but he did note the success of the early-’80s “Pardon Me” television commercial featuring a refined French gentleman being chauffered in a Rolls-Royce as he enjoys his spoonable, not squeezable, mustard with his roast beef dinner. A second Rolls pulls up, the window lowers and a flat-vowelled American gent inquires: “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”
This elite branding, this upscale repositioning, was so successful, Gladwell found, that by the end of the 1980s, “Grey Poupon was the most powerful brand in mustard.” He did not document by what measure — did he mean volume? revenues? — but citing single-market sales increases of as much as 50 per cent, Gladwell concluded that the American supermarket shopper was willing to pay a hefty premium “as long as what they were buying carried with it an air of sophistication and complex aromatics.”
If Grey Poupon could upend the mustard category, it stood to reason that ketchup, too, should be vulnerable to premium, upscale competition.
Or perhaps not.
The New Yorker story focused on a Bostonian named Jim Wigon who, in Gladwell’s account, set himself on a mission to cook up a better ketchup, which he marketed as the World’s Best Ketchup — in clear glass, 10-ounce jars. But Wigon was struggling, as were other gourmet ketchup creators trying to nose in on Heinz’s turf. Mustard varieties continued to multiply, but ketchup did not.
Perhaps, Gladwell ultimately posited, the tyranny of Heinz was unassailable.
Scott Norton cannot precisely recall when he read “The Ketchup Conundrum.” He is clear that in 2008 he and Mark Ramadan, both students at Ivy League Brown University in Providence, R.I., started thinking deeply about ketchup. Or maybe: taking the ketchup challenge. “The article was interesting background and reference and to some degree inspiration,” Norton says. “But there were certain things that it didn’t necessarily talk about that we felt were really important to ketchup.”
Consider, first, the place occupied by Heinz ketchup in the American psyche. “What we realized was that ketchup has a very deep psychographic cultural positioning,” Norton says. “Ketchup and Heinz are synonymous with each other, but they also have this link to the American diner, Route 66 . . . this sense of Americana. Unless you sort of realize that and approach the problem, sort of sneak up on it from behind, we didn’t think we would get anywhere.” The partners synthesized the challenge thusly: “Heinz owns Americana, so we wanted to be something dramatically different.”
What that meant was striking a plan from a distinctive brand-positioning perspective. As a counterpoint to Americana, the entrepreneurs looked to define what Norton calls an “English heritage” — “unique,” “exotic,” “premium” were some of the sought-after characteristics. The brand attributes were personified by a fictional character dubbed “Sir Kensington” — a monocled and rather stern blueblood — after whom the product was named. “By putting it in the context and the positioning of something like an English aristocrat or a knight, people would say, ‘Well, of course this is different,’ “ says Norton. “It’s different for a reason. It’s different because it’s better.”
The cultural reference was extended to the creation of an outlandish, tongue-in-cheek biography of the Sir Kensington character. “Upon joining the National Geographic Society and Guild of Pepperers, he accepted a post in Constantinople in the service of Her Majesty, advising the British East India Company in speculation of rare spices. Upon his return to England, he authored and defended his groundbreaking thesis, “A Most Seemly Union: Byzantine Gastronomy & the Delightful Marriage of Greek and Roman Influence, 330-453,” to earn a doctorate from Cambridge.” And so on.
Beyond the puckish personality, Sir Kensington’s Ketchup needed a discrete flavour and taste profile — as Norton notes, a ketchup “that wasn’t the same goopie stuff that everyone knew.” Textured. Earthier. Identifiable ingredients. These were desired. “We wanted people to be able to see the chunks of onion, to see the particles of tomato, because that would suggest that it’s real food rather than something that looks a little bit like molecular gastronomy . . . In every other category of food, the supply chain was getting simpler and people were looking more and more toward all-natural ingredients. It seemed like an inevitability that what has happened to things like dairy, has happened to things like grain, has happened to even to mustard, should inevitably happened to ketchup, too.”
It was to be fresher. To taste like real tomatoes — but in balance. Less sweet than Heinz. “Our palates were much more skewed toward savoury and away from sweet,” Norton says.
What is “savoury”? A little more than a century ago, Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda added a fifth taste sensation to the long-held belief that the palate was attuned to sweet, sour, bitter and salty flavours. Ikeda added “umami,” which the Tokyo-based Umami Information Center — yes, there is such a thing — describes as a “pleasant, savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods.”
Pushing past the science, the short story is that umami is found in meats, fish, mushrooms, soya beans, truffles, cheeses. Parmesan is off the charts — well, almost — on the umami scale.
Tomatoes don’t come close to Parmesan, but the tomato is deemed to be “foremost” among umami-scoring plants. “Its attractive, full, rounded ‘meaty’ flavour comes from its heavy load of glutamates,” the information centre tells us. “This flavour is reinforced by its unique crimson colour, the colour of blood which is the very essence of animal life.”
Norton says the cooking down of tomatoes not only increases the intensity of the fruit’s flavour but ups the umami component. In seeking the precisely right Sir Kensington’s taste esthetic, its creators sought an equilibrium between the savoury and the salt, sweet, sour and bitter. As Norton says, “Ketchup is unique for its balance of all the five basic tastes.”
With Ramadan, he set about cooking batches of the elixir in his apartment, just a couple of twentysomethings in their fourth year of university with a regular set of pots and pans and not so much as a mesh guard to ward off the tomato splatter. (Hot, spitting purée landing on skin was dubbed a Kensington kiss.) Aviator shades came in handy, as did full-body sheathing with plastic bags.
Six test ketchups were concocted, including a Tex-Mex version and a Christmas ketchup that played upon notes of maple and cloves. A tasting party was held. Their “classic” ketchup — made today with tomatoes, allspice, bell peppers and onion blended with organic cane sugar and salt — and a spicy ketchup drew the most applause. And then came the designing of labels featuring Sir Kensington’s mug, and a cross-state trip to buy a load of glass jars. “We wanted to disrupt the way that ketchup was packaged,” Norton says. “So we said, OK, we’re going to call it scooping ketchup because instead of being indiscriminately squeezed we are going to be scooped, like a fine preserve or a jam would be, with a spoon. Instead of using plastic we’re going to use glass.”
In June 2010, after a lot of learning about supply chains and sourcing and bringing a product to market, the partners presented Sir Kensington’s at the Fancy Food Show in New York City. A folding table, a table cloth, an array of jarred ketchup.
“Sonoma dropped by, Dean & DeLuca dropped by,” Norton says, making the high-end emporiums sound like the in-laws popping in for tea. Foodie retailers got it. Both Sonoma and D & D placed orders, followed by Whole Foods. Then it was on to the more mid-market supermarket players — Wegmans, Safeway. Only by storming the supermarket shelf will Sir Kensington’s achieve its objective of “moving food culture forward” or becoming part of the “cultural zeitgeist,” Norton believes. “If it’s not on the supermarket shelf, if it’s not served in restaurants, then all we are is standing on a soapbox and talking.”
Late last year, Sir Kensington’s Ketchup started to pop up in Canadian stores — select Sobeys and approximately 80 Loblaws stores carry it. Jars have been spotted in the food court of Hudson’s Bay on Queen Street.
Norton says it took close to a year to get Sir Kensington’s “Canada-ready.” Not that the product changed at all. “The Canadian definition of ketchup is so legally specific that we could not call our product ketchup in Canada. We’re all about using whole ingredients in our products so we actually have pieces of onion in there . . . If we used onion powder, that would be seasoning. But if we’re using actual pieces of onion, now all of a sudden it’s not real ketchup.”
Perhaps Sir Kensington himself would be amused by Section B.11.014 of Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations governing “Tomato Catsup, Catsup or products whose common names are variants of the word Catsup.” This product “shall be the heat-processed product made from the juice of red-ripe tomatoes or sound tomato trimmings from which skins and seeds have been removed,” and shall contain vinegar, salt, seasoning and a sweetening ingredient and may contain food colour and a preservative.
In keeping with Canadian regulations, Sir Kensington’s Ketchup is labelled — well, this is simply absurd — “ketchup-style sauce” and “sauce de type ketchup.”
Before coming to Canada, Sir Kensington himself had a facelift — redrawn to appear less serious, less stiff upper lip (the owners concluded that the ironic sensibility was lost on some consumers). He still sports a monocle, but he’s a bit more jowly, so it was more of a face relax than a lift. Maybe he’s a bit more fun at parties.
The ketchup has been joined by Sir Kensington’s Mayonnaise, made from eggs produced by “well-mannered hens.” The mayo, similarly scoopable from glass jars, has drawn raves from the likes of Bon Appétit magazine and sits cheek-to-cheek with Sir K’s Ketchup on Loblaws shelves. (The ketchup is priced at $6.99; the mayonnaise at $7.99.)
Such “disruption” in the condiment aisle — the artisanal allure, the highbrow imprint — is really a historical throwback. Newspaper advertisements from the 1920s show French’s “cream salad mustard,” as the product was then known, potted up in clear glass jars with labelling as pretty as Grey Poupon’s. The mustard came in a box, no less, with a little paddle for scooping. Through the Fifties and Sixties the glass jars remained in use, though the labels lost some of their refinement.
Henry John Heinz sold his first condiment long before Francis French got into mustard. In his early 20s, a young Heinz started selling horseradish in clear glass bottles as opposed to the more common brown or green glass, which could disguise phony fillers and substandard ingredients. Heinz’s clear glass showed off the white, high-quality grated root to best effect.
In 1869, at the age of 25, Heinz partnered in a venture selling horseradish, and then celery sauce, then pickles and so on under the Anchor Brand food label. He would declare bankruptcy six years later, and it would be some time before Heinz became a tycoon for the history books. Yet even as a young entrepreneur he was guided by clear principles: “Idea Number One: Housewives are willing to pay someone else to take over a share of their more tedious kitchen work. Idea Number Two: A pure article of superior quality will find a ready market through its own intrinsic merit — if it is properly packaged and promoted.”
Well that sounds familiar.
Last year, Heinz itself seemed to be going up-market, aspirational if you will, by launching a new line of ketchup in Europe. Called “Culinair,” the condiment is done up in glass pots and offered in foodie flavours — curry, pepper and lemon; grilled garlic, thyme and honey; balsamic vinegar, basil and oregano. The ketchup is deeper in colour, thicker in consistency and lacking that sleek synthetic look familiar to American consumers. Its European advertising goes to one of Sir Kensington’s key attributes: “So thick you just have to spoon me.”
“We’re flattered,” Norton says in response. “We’re like, great, Heinz is doing scooping ketchup now . . . When you’re as small as us and Heinz is as big as they are, sometimes the things they do which can be construed as competitive are actually educational to the market.”
Heinz says it has no plans as of this moment to introduce Culinair to North America, but it has introduced flavour line extensions here, most notably a balsamic ketchup and a hot and spicy. Its dominance on supermarket shelves, albeit in the company of less expensive house brands, is all but absolute.
Is there enough of a Sir Kensington’s distinction — its flavour profile, its small-batch patina, its scoopability — to secure the “Divine Alternative” positioning that its branding line pledges? If so, could it be that, a decade after Malcolm Gladwell pondered the ketchup conundrum, the tomato condiment has at last found its Grey Poupon moment?
“When we started we heard more of the, ‘There is only one ketchup and there can be only one ketchup,’ “ Norton says in closing. “Now people’s attitude is, ‘Oh, of course, better ketchup like better everything else.’ “
Norton will not go so far as to claim that Gladwell been proven wrong. “I don’t know if I can say that. I think we’re on our way.”