Playing Catch-up With 'Ketchup' In A Business That Takes Slowness Very Seriously, Del Monte Adapts A New Spelling, After 70 Years.

Posted: December 14, 1988

Kiss catsup goodbye. After 70 years of spelling the tomato condiment catsup, Del Monte has kowtowed to ketchup.

Del Monte is now applying the K-word on bottles moving through its plants in Modesto, Calif., and New Brunswick, N.J.

Gradually, the K-word bottles are replacing the C-word bottles on grocery shelves nationwide. And within a few months, bottles of Del Monte catsup will be kaput.

By moving into the K-column, Del Monte, which has about 10 percent of the nation's ketchup business, has accepted the spelling used by Heinz and Hunt's, the nation's key makers of ketchup.

The move is being made, according to Del Monte's Donna Higgins, to accommodate consumers. Research showed that even though Del Monte spelled it catsup, their customers spelled it ketchup. Continually. And so, after 70 years, the customer was right. Incidentally, Americans consume an average of three bottles per person per year.

Despite the move by Del Monte, Webster's is unconvinced. According to Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, ketchup is a "variation" of catsup, which the dictionary says is derived from kechap, the Malay word for a spiced fish sauce that dates to 1690.

(There are, by the way, about as many varieties of the dictionary using the name Webster as there are spellings of ketchup. Webster's New World Dictionary, published by Simon & Schuster of New York, says the word is ketchup. But the Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, which is published by Merriam-Webster Inc. of Springfield, Mass., says it is catsup.)

Around America the changed spelling was greeted noncommittally by kindred members of the ketchup club.

In Pittsburgh, Beth Adams of Heinz USA, the nation's king of ketchup sales, said Heinz had spelled it both ways for a while. Heinz had some bottles with catsup and some with ketchup until the early 1900s, when it moved to the K- column.

And in Fullerton, Calif., Kay Carpenter of Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson said Hunt's ketchup, the nation's No. 2 brand, has been spelled the K-way for "over 20 years."

No matter which way the word is spelled, the same mixture of tomato puree, vinegar, sweeteners and spices is in the bottle.

But how it is spelled connotes class, said Carpenter.

The conventional wisdom among those in the condiment crowd has been that the K-word has "an upscale" appeal, while the C-spelling is more commonplace, she said.

Among eaters, news of the ketchup coup stirred little reaction.

In Charlotte, N.C., proclaimed by a recent A.C. Nielsen survey as the No. 1 ketchup-eating city in America, restaurateur Rick Carter said the spelling didn't matter but tradition did.

"Everybody in the South eats ketchup," said Carter, who added that his rib house went through about 10 cases each week. Carter said that he did not

put the red stuff on ribs, but did apply it to his french fries. He will continue to do so, Carter said, regardless of how it is spelled.

Also unmoved was Bill Doxanas, owner of the Bel-Loc diner north of Baltimore, who already was firmly in the K-column. Each week, his diner goes through 72 bottles of it, all of it spelled the K-way, said Doxanas.

Speed rather than spelling was the test of a good ketchup, Doxanas said, with slower being better.

In Omaha, Neb., reportedly the nation's No. 2 ketchup-consuming city, Delores Daschle, owner of Cecil's Cafe, said pairing rather than spelling was the key factor in her customer's condiment use.

"People put ketchup on eggs, on hamburgers and fries," she said. One customer even put some on a chocolate doughnut. He put mustard on the doughnut, too. "But that was 20 years ago . . . when the cafe was in a different location," she said. She hasn't seen the ketchup-and-doughnut man since the cafe moved.

Change on the ketchup front is slow-moving, appropriately.

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