America is Swimming in Sauce

America is Swimming in Sauce
America is Swimming in Sauce

Summary

Companies can’t quit condiments, dividing households. ‘I want my fridge back.’

Bored with leftovers or your go-to menu picks? There’s a sauce for that.

Or two, or several dozen. Food companies and restaurant chains are flooding U.S. consumers with condiments, delighting some and drowning others—sometimes in the same household.

Jack in the Box worked with a Michelin-starred chef to formulate its bottled “Munchie Sauce." Ketchup kingpin Kraft Heinz over the past year has debuted at least a dozen new sauce-related products, including “sauce drops" modeled on limited-edition sneaker releases. PepsiCo released a soda-infused “Pepsi Colachup," while Popeye’s went for truffle sauce to class up its chicken sandwich.

The deluge has poured chaos on the Maydans, an Illinois family whose refrigerator recently held three kinds of mayonnaise, at least seven barbecue sauces, three horseradishes, three mustards, A-1 steak sauce, cocktail sauce, Filipino kare kare sauce, and an Indian tikka masala sauce. Jeanette Maydan said her husband, Artem, regularly deploys around a half-dozen at once at meals.

“He gets a separate plate out and makes piles of each of the sauces on the plate—like a painter’s palette," she said.

Maydan, who believes food should be able to be eaten unadorned, said her husband’s sauce habit was tolerable when they lived in a home with multiple refrigerators. Now that they are down to just one, things are getting out of control: “I want my fridge back."

Sauce preferences, it turns out, are highly personal and deeply relished. Melissa Love’s affinity for ketchup led her to tattoo the image of a Heinz bottle onto her upper right arm in January—just above a drawing of her two children. Love, a U.K.-based nurse, grew up eating buttered-bread-and-ketchup sandwiches for dinner, and she still keeps small packets in her purse.

“There have been occasions where the packets have ripped open and spoiled the handbag but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take," Love said.

Condiment makers sense a cultural moment. Kraft Heinz, which calls itself the world’s number one player in sauce, in September dipped into action after someone tweeted about a key development at a Kansas City Chiefs football game: “Taylor Swift was eating a piece of chicken with ketchup and seemingly ranch!"

Within days, Kraft Heinz was marketing a limited-edition bottle that rebranded its existing “Kranch" sauce as “Ketchup and Seemingly Ranch."

Kraft Heinz, maker of A-1 steak sauce and Miracle Whip, last year began “dropping" limited-edition sauces at chicken joints nationwide, including a brewery mustard (“ale aroma and hoppy background") and yuzu wasabi (creamy with “bright citrus notes").

‘Luxury condiments’

The company is seeking to turn restaurant condiment counters into R&D outposts and is peddling to eateries its new “Heinz Remix" customizable sauce dispenser.

Using a digital touch screen, diners can mix a “base," like ketchup, ranch or barbecue sauce, with “enhancers" such as jalapeño, smoky chipotle, buffalo and mango, producing more than 300 potential combinations. The device will feed information back to the company, making it “an insights engine," according to Alan Kleinerman, Kraft Heinz’s vice president of global disruptive innovation.

Exotic condiments like chicken bacon ranch, Korean gochujang and Mexican Tajin are spreading across U.S. restaurant menus faster than they were a decade ago, according to market-research firm Datassential. McDonald’s last year sold cups of its creamy Big Mac sauce at restaurants, for a limited time. Now, third-party sellers are hawking them on eBay.

Some are going upscale: Popeye’s chicken sandwich got gussied up with a black truffle-infused mayo from Truff, which bills itself as a maker of “luxury condiments" and sells a three pack of its hot sauces and oil in a “a gorgeous matte black and gold foil VIP box."

Taco Bell took a year developing its new “Bell" sauce to dress up a line of nuggets. “We’re using chicken as a canvas for sauces," said Taylor Montgomery, Taco Bell’s chief marketing officer.

Adding sauce doesn’t always go smoothly, nor does getting off the sauce.

Taco Bell’s Carolina reaper sauce proved too hot for the chain’s fans, Montgomery said. A contingent that can’t get enough of Chick-fil-A’s Honey Roasted BBQ spread has circulated an online petition to get the brand to bottle it. And some fans cried when McDonald’s dropped Hot Mustard sauce from menus nationally, leading it to vanish from some restaurants.

“I haven’t bought nuggets since the sauce disappeared," said Francisco Paquin Martinez, a 50-year-old shipping clerk from Chicago. His sentiment is shared by some 300 fellow members of a Facebook group called “Bring Back Hot Mustard Sauce McDonald’s."

In Durham, N.C., sauce stirred up friction between Kathleen Wallace and her husband. Wallace, a 35-year-old operations supervisor who has a background in restaurant management, said early in their relationship she came to doubt her cooking, since her future husband was always dumping sauce on her dishes.

He eventually confessed to just really loving condiments, and their fridge now bulges with bottles. “Not only is our door filled, but we also use a shelf for the overflow," she said.

‘A little gross’

Christine Muscat, a 35-year-old project manager from Ferndale, Mich., is a longtime ranch dressing die-hard who enjoys saucier mash-ups such as Hidden Valley Ranch’s ranch with buffalo sauce. She is also eager to try Hidden Valley Ranch’s ranch with even more ranch, launched in November as “Double Ranch."

So deep is Muscat’s regard for ranch that there was talk of a ranch fountain at her wedding. Only one problem: the groom.

“It’s a wedding," said Scott Breitenbach, Muscat’s husband. “It’s a little gross to have ranch pouring out everywhere."

Muscat was dismayed in January when Hidden Valley and Burt’s Bees, both owned by Clorox, rolled out a new ranch-flavored lip balm that quickly sold out before she could snag a sample. Breitenbach doesn’t mind.

“Coming in for a kiss and getting and getting a whiff of ranch, I don’t know about that," he said.

Write to Jesse Newman at jesse.newman@wsj.com and Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com

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