Rufa: The Great Condiment Wars of 2015

Last April, Heinz, of ketchup fame, launched its own mustard, because it didn’t want to share the picnic table with any other brand of condiment. Not to be outdone, French’s, of mustard fame, launched its own ketchup, because it too wanted to dominate the picnic table.

According to an anonymous source at Heinz, folks in the product development department confabbed at length about the launch with top execs, advocating for the new product because “the world doesn’t have enough mustard.” When I asked the source for details, he said, “Follow the mustard.”

So I did. I scheduled a trip to a local supermarket and, equipped with notebook and pen, I headed for the condiment aisle. On the way, I brushed up on my counting — one, two, three, four, five. Piece of cake - how high would I possibly have to count?

I decided to start with the ketchup (spelled catsup in epicurean circles) — and I quit counting when I reached 10. I counted only brand names, not varieties within brand — no-salt, sugar-free, spicy and so forth — and didn’t include any of the designer brands I’d seen in specialty and health food boutiques because I was limiting my report to coverage of a regular supermarket.

Now it was on to mustard, which is only spelled mustard, and here’s where it really got out of hand. I started getting cross-eyed when I reached 24, which is where I quit counting. That’s 24 different brands, most with varieties like honey mustard, deli, yellow, horseradish, spicy and Dijon. There amongst them was the new Heinz, and I couldn’t help but think that it’s a good thing they got into the mustard side of condiments because they really filled a niche.

I concluded my research thinking the consumer could spend a day in the condiment aisle alone, trying to decide on something to make their food taste better. I thought about what my source at Heinz had said: “The world doesn’t have enough mustard.” Well, it does now.

But then I made the mistake of turning down the cereal aisle, and I immediately flashed back to my childhood and my local grocery store shelves, when I could count the number of known cereals in my world on under 10 fingers — oldies-but-goodies like Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Wheaties, Cheerios, Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats, and maybe a few others you had to supply your own sugar for. Variations on a theme began to proliferate even before the 1950s were over — Frosted Flakes and Sugar Pops were just the beginning of the trend in 1951 — and the result today is cereals on both sides of the aisle, stretching 56 feet toward the rear of the store. Cereals as far as the eye could see.

The takeaway from all this, of course, is that just when I thought I’d run out of ideas for columns, someone in Facebook happened to mention Heinz’s new mustard. Thanks, Consuelo.