When supermarket giant Loblaws announced it was going to pull French’s ketchup off its shelves, Canadians took to social media in droves, protesting so loudly that Loblaws reversed its original decision and promised this week to give the underdog brand another chance.
Ketchup is a sensitive topic, particularly in Ontario. Two years ago Heinz shut down its historic production facility in Leamington, tomato capital of the country, and 750 people lost jobs. Soon after, another company called Highbury Canco reopened the factory and created 250 jobs, which has now increased to 400. While the factory continues to package some tomatoes for Heinz, though not in the form of ketchup, it got a real boost when U.S. brand French’s started buying Leamington tomato paste in January.
Loblaw’s announcement came at a key moment. While many Canadian shoppers may have been surprised to learn that the famous mustard company now makes ketchup too (it doesn’t get the prime shelf real estate that Heinz typically does), there were many who did know about French’s use of Ontario tomatoes, thanks to a guy named Brian Fernandez from Orillia, ON.
CBC reports: “A facility in Toronto manufactures the company's food services ketchup — the stuff that ends up in restaurants — while a plant in Ohio makes the stuff that ends up on grocery store shelves. But both plants use Leamington tomatoes.”
Fernandez wrote a Facebook post in late February about French’s ketchup and how it is made with tomatoes that are grown and processed by Canadians. Fernandez is fussy about his ketchup: “It can’t be too runny or have too much vinegar.” He did a blind taste-test between Heinz, which has been his go-to brand for years, and French’s ketchup, and found the latter to be delicious. Even better, French’s does not contain high fructose corn syrup. The post went viral and has had more than 133,000 shares, raising awareness just in time for Loblaw’s announcement.
The Canadian Press cited a leaked internal memo in which Loblaw’s says it will stop stocking French’s because of the effect on its house brand, President’s Choice: “We are in the process of delisting French’s ketchup because it is cannibalizing the sales of PC ketchup and has had little impact to Heinz ketchup,” reads the memo. Adding to the complexity of the debate, PC ketchup is made in Ontario with California-grown tomatoes.
Loblaw’s now states that the memo was “unofficial and misinformed and sent by a staff member prior to the decision to restock French’s ketchup,” and that “customer preference was the single reason the product was removed from our shelves, and the single reason it is back.”
Who knew ketchup would hit that patriotic sweet spot for Canadians? There are reports of stores unable to keep French’s ketchup on the shelves. Fernandez posted a Facebook photo of empty shelves where French’s should be, while a full row of Heinz ketchup is marked down for sale. It's even making the editorial cartoons:
A successful petition has led to French’s ketchup being exclusively served at the provincial legislature’s cafeteria. Farmers and factory workers in the Leamington area are celebrating the unexpected boost from social media and sending thank you letters to Fernandez. Even premier Kathleen Wynne tweeted a picture of herself buying French’s ketchup.
Proud to buy Ontario-grown. We've invested in Leamington's Highbury Canco plant where French's ketchup is made! pic.twitter.com/nRJ7pUnnbn— Kathleen Wynne (@Kathleen_Wynne) March 16, 2016
It’s the Ketchup Wars of 2016, and the underdog has come out on top, which is always a cause for celebration. As Fernandez wrote this week:
“Hurray! Loblaws has rescinded their decision and WILL carry Canadian made French's ketchup! That includes all Zehrs and Canadian Superstores. Well done my friends for speaking up. Support Canadian workers. Support Canadian farmers. Support Canadian made products.”