Will Artisanal Condiments Become Widespread?

Artisanal condiment companies in the US are hungry to change perceptions of how condiments should be prepared and sold

Empire Mayonnaise Co. in Brooklyn.
Facebook/Empire Mayo
Empire Mayonnaise Co. in Brooklyn.

Sir Kensington invented hunting to amuse himself on bank holidays. Sir Kensington resoles his shoes with old top hats. Sir Kensington does not domesticate animals; he joins feral ones for wild adventures.

Who is Sir Kensington?

He is a ketchup, invented four years ago in the off-campus apartment of two Brown University students who were looking to shake up the ketchup selection in supermarkets.

And the narrative about Sir Kensington, the saucy character on the label of the jars, is part of the mystique that Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan, the 25-year-old co-founders of the Manhattan company, cooked up to reverse everything Americans have ever known about the french fries topper.

Sir Kensington’s substitutes the high-fructose corn syrup, tomato concentrate, and salt traditionally found in ketchup products with agave nectar, vine-ripened pear tomato purée, and lime juice. It takes a product with a reputation as a lowbrow item that Americans pour over grilled meats and potatoes and transforms it into something British and highly refined. And it is supposed to be spooned out of a short, stout glass jar, not squeezed from a tall, plastic bottle. Mennonites begin making the ketchup with tomatoes harvested in Northern California as early as 5:00 a.m. at a commercial kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country.

"Gourmet ketchup in itself is an oxymoron, or has been," said Norton, formerly of Lehman Brothers, over coffee one morning at a Manhattan café. "We understand there’s an irony here, and we’re building from that irony."

Then the smile disappeared from his face, his toffee-colored mustache (which looks exactly like Sir Kensington’s) drooped. "But the product itself is not a joke. It’s a serious food product."

Sir Kensington’s and other artisanal food companies that make condiments and seasonings in the United States are hungry to change Americans’ perceptions of how condiments — and food in general — should be prepared and sold. Artisanal condiment makers are just one part of the modern-day food movement, which encourages Americans to feast more on food made with wholesome, local ingredients, and less on processed food made with artificial ingredients. They believe they are providing a healthier alternative to the market — valued at $5.6 billion by the market-research firm Mintel International Group and dominated by brands like Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Heinz Tomato Ketchup and French’s Classic Yellow Mustard, all named bestselling condiments by Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

Norton’s competition is sitting at the table next to him: a bearded man spooning Heinz ketchup onto his home fries. Sir Kensington’s $7, 11-ounce jar of ketchup may be available in 1,000 retail stores nationwide, but Heinz sells approximately 160 million bottles of ketchup a year for a lot less (a 14-ounce bottle sells for $2.79 at a supermarket in New York City) and is available in 35,000 retail stores, according to data provided by the company. (Sir Kensington’s refused to reveal its annual sales numbers.)

But it is hard to convince the average consumer to dish out more money for a higher quality product. "There’s this psychology in America with food that cheaper is better and that you should get the same quality no matter the price," Norton said. "Ketchup has always been essentially free to people, and that’s our big challenge. People love our ketchup, but they’d love for it to be cheaper."

Yet there are signs that Americans are open to new flavors in the aftermath of the recession when they cut back on dining out. Condiment sales increased more than 9 percent from 2007 to 2009, and they are the second largest category in the specialty food market after cheese, according to an October 2010 industry report prepared by Tully & Holland, a Wellesley-based boutique investment bank.

In fact, Food Network predicts mustard will be the hottest food trend of 2012. Barry Levenson, founder and curator of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wis. (only 6,978 km from Dijon, France, according to its web site), has noticed that a growing number of small, artisanal companies have been nabbing Grand Champion and Gold Medals at the World-Wide Mustard Competition. While there is nothing new about artisanal mustard, he thinks it makes sense that the food movement would latch onto mustard because it is a healthy food.

"Mustard is an inexpensive thing to use to ramp up other foods, but it’s always been that way, it’s just a question of it taking off a little more," Levenson said. "It’s low in fat, has virtually no cholesterol and very little sugar, so it’s the kind of thing that does speak to people looking to be healthy as well as to save money."

Nach Waxman, who owns Kitchen Arts & Letters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the largest culinary bookstore in the U.S., said more people are giving a facelift to the most basic ingredients in the food pyramid in an effort to return to a simpler way of preparing meals. Some customers have even told him that they want to learn how to churn their own butter.

"There’s a desire to control the quality and character of the ingredients that you use... down to condiments and even the most fundamental ingredients," he said in an interview at his Lexington Avenue shop. "Some restaurants are now starting to make everything from their own mustards to pepper sauces, rather than use Tabasco sauce."

He chuckled and said, "I always kid around and say if it’s possible, people would mine their own salt."

Well, meet Ben Jacobsen, 36, a former Internet company owner and Portland, Ore., resident who hand-harvests sea salt from the state’s coastal waters––an arduous 20-to-30 hour process that can burn skin. Jacobsen started Jacobsen Salt Co. in September 2011 and sells his product in 4-ounce packets for $9.50. Artisanal food makers use their hands, not machines, to make as much of the product as they can.

"For a lot of people, Morton Salt was given to us, and ignorance was bliss," Jacobsen said. "But in the U.S., with the culture of fast food and convenience food, seasoning was forgotten too easily. We’re just now beginning to rediscover it. The U.S. is surrounded by ocean... so we certainly have the natural resources to do this."

Artisanal condiment makers source local ingredients and make seasonal flavors whenever possible to set an example for how American consumers should eat and shop. Elizabeth Valleau, 32, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s Empire Mayonnaise, looks for what she calls "happy eggs" raised by "happy farmers" to make her egg-based product.

"We’re preaching to the converted now, but as we start to get larger, and we start talking to a less educated audience, we’ll start speaking out more," said Valleau, an advertising creative director who jars mayo and jams punk in a band called OWWLS. She is competing with Hellmann’s, which sells 200 million units of mayonnaise annually.

Along with fellow chef Sam Mason, 37 — who once served up skirt-steak ice cream on Iron Chef America — Valleau purchases exotic eggs (ostrich, emu, and quail) from sellers at the Brooklyn Flea’s Smorgasburg, a weekend outdoor food market for adventurous eaters, to whip up different varieties of mayonnaise.

It is important that she knows where the ingredients are coming from.

"There’s someone there with a duck farm, so we’ll go out and meet the ducks and get their eggs," she said.

Sounds eerily like a scene from an episode of IFC’s hit show Portlandia, when SNL’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein visited the farm where a restaurant’s chicken was raised to learn more about its life. In fact, a bottle of artisanal ketchup called Portlandia Foods (not related to the show) appeared in the third episode of season two.

Jeff Bergadine, 38, owner of the ketchup company and fan of the show, believes "ketchup can change the world."

"Ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise are everywhere — in ballparks, convention centers, cafés, bars, school systems, so how can we make this healthy?" he said. "Condiments are everyday use items, and everyday use items are right for this kind of change."

However, Anna Wolf, 28, owner of My Friend’s Mustard, a whole-grain mustard company started in Brooklyn in August 2010, argues that putting her mustard on everything would not make it "special" anymore.

"If you use it more sparingly, you’re more likely to remember it than if you eat it with everything," she said.

She also admits that not all of her ingredients can be sourced locally. The spices and Sixpoint beer come from Brooklyn, but "if I wanted to grow mustard seed, I’d have to have a mustard farm."

Fortunately, Canada, the second largest producer of mustard seeds in the world, has plenty of those. She buys 1,000 pounds of mustard seed at a time.

The artisanal companies believe they make more than just a condiment or a seasoning; they make experiences. They believe a handmade condiment can transform eating from a routine part of life to something people can look forward to — without leaving the house. These couture condiment producers regularly hold tastings at food markets and specialty food stores, adding a face to what is on the shelf.

To differentiate themselves from the Goliaths of the condiment industry, they have to be more creative in the way they manufacture and market their product. Sir Kensington’s Norton and Ramadan have been throwing ketchup parties since their Brown days. Guests scoop the gourmet ketchup on frites and sausages, sip Kir Royales, and groove to pop music (think Arcade Fire). After about a year in business, Empire Mayonnaise opened a new factory and storefront in Prospect Heights in early April, where the owners hope to throw more of their signature sandwich parties.
"I’m thinking seasonal themed ones, like a Mother’s Day sandwich party with feminine, pretty colors and tastings of cherry blossom mayo or lavender mayo, and you could bring your Mom to tea!" Valleau said.

At the moment, haute condiments are mostly available at specialty food markets and upscale stores such as Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, Sur La Table, and the New Seasons Market in Portland. But will Americans find fancy ketchup, mustard, mayo, and salt at mainstream supermarkets or fast-foods chains in the near future? Not likely, but the giants are heeding the call for healthier products.
In May 2010, ConAgra Foods stopped putting high fructose corn syrup in Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup due to consumer demands. Heinz now produces an organic version of its tomato ketchup, made from USDA-certified organic tomatoes, that does not contain high-fructose corn syrup. Hellmann’s sells a reduced fat mayonnaise with olive oil that is made with cage-free eggs. These new and improved condiments show just how far the food movement has spread.

The Davids may not be beating the Goliaths, but at least they are making them more wholesome.


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