Salsa Overtook Ketchup 20 Years Ago

The Internet explodes over news that salsa sales have bested ketchup, but George Constanza was complaining about this two decades ago.

Bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup on Feb. 15 in London. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway is teaming with the Brazilian investment group 3G Capital to buy H.J. Heinz Co. for $23.3 billion.
National Journal
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Alex Seitz Wald
Oct. 17, 2013, 11:25 a.m.

Close the bor­der gates, can­cel the DREAM Act, and tor­pedo im­mig­ra­tion re­form, be­cause salsa sales have over­taken ketch­up, screams the ban­ner head­line on the Drudge Re­port Thursday af­ter­noon. The massive, all-caps splash (with an im­age of a som­brero over­top) links to an As­so­ci­ated Press story that notes that the salsa news, still just barely sink­ing in, is “just the start.”

“These days, tor­til­las out­sell bur­ger and hot dog buns; sales of tor­tilla chips trump potato chips; and ta­cos and burri­tos have be­come so ubi­quit­ously ‘Amer­ic­an,’ most people don’t even con­sider them eth­nic,” the AP’s Su­z­ette La­boy and J.M. Hirsch write. It’s just an­oth­er in­dic­at­or of the chan­ging demo­graph­ics in a coun­try that is now a quarter His­pan­ic.

But, as is turns out, salsa over­took ketch­up over 20 years ago, and this is just the latest in long line of stor­ies us­ing culin­ary sales as a mark­er of demo­graph­ic change.

As the New York Times re­por­ted way back in 1992: “ketch­up, long the king of Amer­ic­an con­di­ments, has been de­throned. Last year, salsa…took the con­di­ment crown, out­selling ketch­up by $40 mil­lion in re­tail stores.” Dav­id Weiss, the pres­id­ent of New York-based Pack­aged Facts Inc., the same mar­ket-re­search firm that the AP’s quotes in its 2013 story, told the Times back then that “the taste for salsa is as main­stream as apple pie these days.”

That same year, NPR said the salsa vs. ketch­up trend told us “as much as any census find­ing.” Here’s Mark McEwen ex­press­ing his awe on CBS’ “This Morn­ing” from March 19, 1992: “And would you be­lieve salsa now out­sells ketch­up in this coun­try? Our nu­tri­tion­ist Audrey Cross, will be here to tell us how to en­joy Mex­ic­an food without feel­ing guilty”¦. Salsa!”

Even George Cost­anza knew this. “You know salsa is the num­ber one con­di­ment in Amer­ica right now,” he said on a 1992 epis­ode of Sein­feld.

The next year, Wash­ing­ton Post vis­ited a trade show and re­por­ted, “now that com­pan­ies have em­braced the fact that salsa is out­selling cat­sup, the con­ven­tion floor was filled with new sal­sas as well as the tor­tilla chips to dip in­to them. Heinz, no doubt shak­ing in its red boots, is even rolling out a salsa cat­sup.”

But ketch­up wasn’t go­ing to take this ly­ing down. “Ketch­up is en­joyed by people of all ages and it’s served with all man­ner of cuisine. Salsa simply can nev­er be as pop­u­lar,” Heinz Pres­id­ent and Chief Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­ficer An­thony O’Re­illy said in 1995.

Ahead of the mil­len­ni­um, 1999 saw an­oth­er round of “salsa out­sells ketch­up stor­ies,” and by 2002 the Bo­ston Globe felt this was such con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that it lead a story with this: “It is, by now, a food cliche to say that salsa out­sells ketch­up in Amer­ic­an su­per­mar­kets.”

In 2004, the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania’s War­ton School of Busi­ness pos­ted an art­icle on their web­site not­ing that with the rise in the His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, “mar­keters are scram­bling harder than ever” to meet their needs. The head­line: “Salsa Out­selling Ketch­up? Mar­ket­ing to His­pan­ics Is Hot.”

But Heinz’s O’Re­illy is prob­ably right. As the Wall Street Journ­al‘s Carl Bi­a­lik poin­ted out in 2007, the num­bers on sales are mis­lead­ing since they meas­ure dol­lar sales, and ketch­up is vastly much less ex­pens­ive per ounce than salsa. That year, ketch­up trounced salsa in pounds sold, 329.8 mil­lion to 184.6 mil­lion. And most mar­ket re­search only looks at products sold in stores, miss­ing the mil­lions of gal­lons of ketch­up sold through fast-food res­taur­ants.

And as many food crit­ics are quick to point out, the all-Amer­ic­an products we put ketch­up on — ham­burgers and hot dogs — were them­selves once im­ports them­selves from Ger­many. French Fries trace their roots to Bel­gi­um.

Fear not, ketch­up. Your place in Amer­ica is se­cure, along­side salsa and now, sri­r­acha.

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