The Great Ketchup Packet Shortage of 2021

In an article in the Wall Street Journal Heather Haddon and Annie Gasparro write about the latest shortage to afflict consumers. First it was toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant spray. Now it’s ketchup packets:

After enduring a year of closures, employee safety fears and start-stop openings, many American restaurants are now facing a nationwide ketchup shortage. Restaurants are trying to secure the tabletop staple after Covid-19 upended the condiment world order. Managers are using generic versions, pouring out bulk ketchup into individual cups and hitting the aisles of Costco for substitutes.

“We’ve been hunting high and low,” said Chris Fuselier, owner of Denver-based Blake Street Tavern, who has struggled to keep ketchup in stock for much of this year.

The pandemic turned many sit-down restaurants into takeout specialists, making individual ketchup packets the primary condiment currency for both national chains and mom-and-pop restaurants. Packet prices are up 13% since January 2020, and their market share has exploded at the expense of tabletop bottles, according to restaurant-business platform Plate IQ.

Even fast-food giants are pleading for packets. Long John Silver’s LLC, a nearly 700-unit chain, had to seek ketchup from secondary suppliers because of the rush in demand. The industry’s pandemic shift to packets has pushed up prices, costing the Louisville, Ky.-based company an extra half-million dollars, executives said, since single-serve is pricier than bulk.

“Everyone out there is grabbing for ketchup,” Chief Marketing Officer Stephanie Mattingly said.

What is unclear to me, either from the article or from additional research, is where in the supply chain the problem has cropped up or if it is, indeed, everywhere.

For Kraft Heinz, the 500 lb. gorilla of ketchup and most condiments, it may not be quite as simple as ordering more. For example, the tomato varieties used in Heinz ketchup are tailored specifically to the brand and grown exclusively for Kraft Heinz. The harvest was the harvest. I haven’t been able to determine whether Kraft Heinz manufactures their own ketchup packets or whether they’re made for them. In either case they may be made overseas.

And then there are the environmental issues. Single serve condiment packages are terrible for the environment. They tend to be multi-material, too costly to recycle.

I really ought to write a post on retail packaging. Most people don’t think about it but you can basically date modern retail to two developments: single use packaging and mass advertising. That is going to be a substantial impediment to plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, 2050 or 2550. A lot of that packaging is dependent on oil. Dispensing with that packaging would be disastrous for retail and would land on the poorest Americans hardest.

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