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New Heinz ketchup is green, gooey and flying off the shelves

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

By Patricia Sabatini, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You can just see the competition turning green with envy. H.J. Heinz Co. says the initial response to its new green-colored ketchup for kids has been so phenomenal, it hasn't been able to keep up.

Casey Keller, Heinz's managing director for ketchup, says the company has been getting offers from people eager to pay $10 per bottle for the new green product. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

"Quite frankly, we've been caught off guard a bit," a harried spokeswoman, Deb Magness, said. "We're a food company, but we're feeling a lot like toy companies around Christmas time. " Since mid-July, when Heinz announced the green stuff would hit stores this fall, the world's largest ketchup maker has been swamped by requests from people trying to get a sample ahead of the rollout.

Moms have been calling, hoping to snag one for their children's birthday parties. Schools and churches have tried to get them for fund-raisers. A few Hollywood celebrities have called to get them for parties. Even normally staid Wall Street analysts have let their guard down and "begged us for some," Magness said.

A few weeks ago, one person tried to get a bottle by pretending to be a relative of Heinz Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson.

The ruse didn't work.

Overall, Heinz has been pretty stingy about giving out any samples.

"People have offered to pay $10 for a bottle. It's just funny," said Casey Keller, the company's managing director for ketchup. "But we're pretty tight with it because we prefer to send it to our retail customers. Most of the requests we don't fill."

The green kiddy version of Heinz's famously slow-pouring ketchup started showing up on grocer's shelves about a week ago.

It comes in 24-ounce, striped plastic "EZ Squirt" bottles, specially shaped to fit little hands and to be easier to squeeze. Heinz developed the bottles and the funky green color to make the product more fun and capture a new generation of ketchup lovers. The bottles have thinner nozzles so kids can use the ketchup to draw on their food.

So far, demand has been surprisingly strong.

"We're on track to ship in the first 90 days what we thought we would sell in the first year," a beaming Keller said. "This thing just took on a momentum of its own. It struck a chord with kids and people in general."

The ketchup is being made in Muscatine, Iowa, where capacity has been expanded and production lines are running 24 hours a day.

Local Giant Eagle supermarkets were among the first to stock the new ketchup, which Heinz turns green by stripping the pigment from regular ketchup and adding food coloring. Heinz says the process doesn't affect the flavor, but it does charge about 30 cents more for the new bottles, which also are available with red ketchup inside.

Yesterday, managers at various Giant Eagles around town said the new bottles were on the shelves, but selling out quickly.

"One time, three cases were gone within an hour and a half," said a manager at the Giant Eagle on McKnight Road in Wexford.

Still, the big question is whether the green ketchup stampede, just as the Tickle Me Elmo and Beanie Babies crazes before it, will soon fizzle out.

Keller said Heinz will keep the idea fresh, possibly by introducing new colors. The company also believes the child-friendly bottle will create lasting demand.

For now, Keller is enjoying all the attention. "Parents have been asking for [green ketchup] to put in Christmas stockings," he said. "Who would have thought a condiment would go in a kid's stocking?"

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