There's a famous scene in Mad Men when Don Draper and his team at Sterling Cooper Price go head-to-head against Ted Shaw and Peggy Olson for the Heinz account, Peggy steals the show by bemoaning the competition's watered-down imitation brand and clinches the deal with her slogan, "Heinz. The only ketchup." Today, almost fifty years later, the same ad could still run with the same degree of truth. The ad men of Madison Avenue created a long-lasting monopoly. Many still consider Heinz the only ketchup and the competition as unworthy imitators. Today, Heinz is by far the biggest ketchup producer, with over 650 million bottles sold worldwide in more than 140 countries, with annual sales of more than $1.5 billion.
Heinz Ketchup has been around for over 100 years, and the product hasn't changed that much since it first hit the shelves. The company has recently started responding to changing consumer demands by offering souped-up flavors: Jalapeño and Sriracha, and a USDA-certified organic option. Yet even health conscious eaters who jump on the bandwagon of the latest matcha or quinoa craze still reach straight for the Heinz without a second thought. Despite being high in sodium and sugar and containing high-fructose corn syrup, ketchup is the most unhealthy thing that healthy people eat. Americans just won’t give up their favorite brand. But why are we so addicted to Heinz when we crave variety in every other part of our culinary lives, and will it ever change?
One my favorite burgers in NYC is at bar called Daddy O's, one of those homey places that’s neither a dive nor a swanky lounge but hits that sweet spot in-between. Their burger isn't kobe beef or topped with foie gras, and at first I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what made that burger so special. And then it hit me — it was the house-made ketchup, which soaks perfectly into the sesame seed bun and blends that perfect union of sweet and tangy to compliment the meat. Regular old ketchup has never been the same for me since that first bite.
Basically the next best thing to having it made in a nearby kitchen, Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan, the founders of Sir Kensington's, have bottled that mouth-watering concept with a line of artisanal condiments. Together, the two friends and Brown grads, came up with a revolutionary concept: small batch ketchup that isn’t bad for you, and tastes better than your old stand-by.
"When we first started, we noticed there was a huge change happening in food. People were giving consideration to natural, organic, and local ingredients, but somehow the condiment aisle hadn't really evolved,” say the Sir Kensington founders. "So we started experimenting in our kitchen by creating a ketchup that was made with real food."
What's the difference between this young upstart and the brand you've seen on your table since you were a kid? The Sir Kensington brand has half the sugar, a third of the sodium as most big-name ketchups, and is made from whole tomatoes without added processed synthetic ingredients. Sold at Whole Foods and upscale grocers like Eataly in New York City, it’s also being served at some of the most popular restaurants across the country, and is gaining popularity among people who don't want to ditch the popular condiment altogether.
At the Breslin Bar & Dining Room at the Ace Hotel, their famous "thrice cooked" french fries come with a side of cumin mayo, spicy pickles, and Sir Kensington ketchup. When the dish comes out the first thing you may notice — even above the fries — is the ketchup smell, which is fresh and clean like a newly sliced tomato. It's a shade deeper than regular ketchup, and has a more natural texture — not the silky smoothness of Heinz. But it has that twang you expect, and the thicker consistency clings to the fries and doesn’t drip off into my lap halfway to your mouth. The look and consistency are more natural, but it doesn't feel like you're eating some overly gourmet version; it just tastes good.
But even with the biggest chefs like April Bloomfield of the Breslin, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who serves Sir Kensington’s at his ABC Kitchen restaurant, how can a condiment David beat out the ketchup Goliath? "There is the challenge that the experience of ketchup is tied to nostalgia, memory, and habit, so there are always odd holdouts who would jump at a goji chia pudding but are resistant to move away from their old brand of ketchup," Norton and Ramadan say over email. "It's a matter of time, and on the whole, the more curiosity and experimentation people do, the better it is for food culture."