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America is having a ketchup packet shortage

By MixDex Article may include affiliate links

The increase in takeout and delivery orders has apparently put a strain on the supply of one of America’s favorite condiments — ketchup.

Demand for ketchup in all forms is up as people at home more, but the supply chain of the individual portion packets, sometimes called sachets or portion pacs, has been particularly strained, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For dining in, many restaurants offer guests ketchup in the form of a bottle or dispensed into small bowls or cups. However, with sit down dining way below normal levels and some of that business shifting to delivery and takeout, restaurants are finding themselves needing an easy way to give customers ketchup.

Even restaurants offering dine in options (typically at reduced capacity), may eschew bottles since they are touched by multiple customers during the course of the day and add to cleaning time when turning a table over.

While there are options such as plastic cups with caps that can work for carryout, they can be labor intensive to fill and also are also much more likely to leak or get squashed, causing a ketchup-y mess in the bag.

So, buying the sealed packets, which typically hold around 0.25 ounces of the red stuff, has become a more viable option for many restaurants — and that’s causing a nationwide shortage as well as the expected price increase.

Major chains have had to switch suppliers while the average cost of the packets, which are typically sold to restaurants in bulk cases, is up about 13%, according to WSJ reporting.

Of course, Heinz is nearly synonymous with ketchup in America — the company commands about 70% of the retail market — and the brand, owned by Kraft Heinz, has seen upticks in both bottles and packets and is adjusting its manufacturing to meet demand as quickly as possible.

In addition to selling Heinz branded sachets to restaurants, Heinz and other popular manufacturers are also behind many of the “generic” packets used by foodservice.

Another downside to the increase in demand is that sachets typically can’t be consistently recycled. Even if the packet is made of recyclable plastic, many waste management companies tell customers not to recycle them because they can get caught in the machinery and also tend to harbor residue of whatever was in them.

There’s also the issue of waste — many restaurants throw in ketchup packets and other condiments (along with disposable utensils, salt and pepper packets and napkins) with every to go or delivery order, though some food ordering apps and chains either ask if you want them or have an option to indicate that you don’t need any.

While some of these end up in that legendary kitchen drawer filled with soy sauce, ketchup and other sachets, a good many of them likely also end up going straight to the landfill — complete with the now-pricier ketchup inside unused and still sealed.

While tossing away a few ounces of ketchup here and there might not seem all that concerning, the cumulative effect is likely significant (though it’s not clear exactly how many people actually end up tossing unused sachets).

Restaurant owners can help manage their costs and be greener by asking customers, either at the time the order is placed or at pickup, if they need ketchup or other condiments. Some restaurants keep supplies of the sachets at the hostess stand or counter and throw them in as requested to pickup or to go orders.

Train staff to play closer attention to if this option is ticked on orders placed via apps or third parties — because it’s not uncommon for condiments to just get tossed in to every to go bag out of habit — even if the customer indicated they don’t need or want any.

Managers can also have staffers on the clock manually fill containers of condiments as side work, sourcing from larger, bulk containers of ketchup or other condiments.

With restaurants one of the hardest hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic, saving even a fraction of pennies here and there can add up quickly. Extending this practice to other condiments, disposable utensils, napkins and other similar items can also increase savings.

Consumers can help out by saving leftover or unwanted packets from one meal or making sure they have larger size bottles of condiments at home and letting restaurants know they don’t need any included in their order.

Sauces and condiments have also become more of a focus for restaurants, especially large chains. McDonald’s rolled out a collection of sauces to pick from and big names such as Arby’s, KFC, Wendy’s and Raising Cane’s all offer signature sauces.

These offerings can be a great way to differentiate one restaurant from another — especially if the sauce is a big hit with customers.