When pharmaceutical sales executive Bruce Steinberg decided to leave the world of pills behind after 35 years, he picked a different kind of feel-good product to push: ketchup.
"In my role as a pharmaceutical salesman, I was always looking for a hole in the marketplace," Steinberg says. "And I think I've found one in the world of specialty foods. If you go to the supermarket, all the ketchup products look exactly alike. And that's because, with few exceptions, they are."
He's right. Call it ketchup or catchup or catsup, but your basic grocery-store red stuff doesn't vary much from brand to brand when it comes to the ingredients: tomatoes, vinegar, high-fructose corn syrup.
So after graduating from the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac program for new entrepreneurs, Steinberg spent two years on research and development, scoping out the specialty-foods marketplace. He launched his company four months ago: Fine Foods of America, which offers a collection of 12 ketchups under the name Fine Vines Artisanal Ketchup. All are made without high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives.
He started with just one product, a sweet and savory ketchup, but a retail consultant advised him that, for maximum impact in supermarkets, he needed at least three versions of his product (or, better still, five). By the time Steinberg was setting up appointments with local stores and showing up in stores with samples, he had created his full dozen.
The lineup includes Thai ginger, lemon twist, lime fresco, and black truffle, but he says his best-selling product to date is his collaboration with the Roasterie: coffee ketchup. ("It's unbelievable on a hamburger," Steinberg says.) Roasterie founder Danny O'Neill and his staff helped Fine Foods develop the flavor, using ground Ethiopian Sidamo as the dominant note. "It's the coffee they use for [Boulevard Brewing Co.'s] coffee ale," Steinberg says.
Steinberg credits his interest in barbecue - he's a certified American Royal judge - with leading him to ketchup. "Ketchup is the major ingredient in sauces and beans," he says. I started making my own ketchup to use for my barbecue."
As a potential business venture, however, ketchup's popularity in this country was the incentive. "It's the largest condiment category in the United States," Steinberg says. "Heinz sells over a billion bottles of ketchup in the retail market, not including the packets you get at fast-food restaurants or even the bulk product used at those restaurants. It's a very big business."
Steinberg makes his ketchup in the commercial kitchen at the Ennovation Center, in Independence, a business incubator for 30 culinary companies. His glass jars come from China ("My ketchup is too thick to pour, although some places are using it in a squeeze bottle," he says), and he washes them himself before applying his labels by hand.
Fine Vines is available at the Cosentino's Market locations in Brookside and downtown as well as at the two Better Cheddars, the Best of Kansas City store, the Hy-Vee supermarkets in Independence and Mission, and several Price Choppers. Steinberg says he has also heard from a couple of national distributors.
"My goal is to change the way that people think about ketchup - how they use it, how they cook with it, how they buy it," he says. And to make his case, he points to that *other condiment: mustard. "Until Grey Poupon mustard was mass-marketed to American consumers in the 1980s, everyone's idea of mustard was the bright-yellow stuff sold by French's," Steinberg says. "Now, if you go to supermarkets, there are dozens of different kinds of mustards on the shelves. I want to do that with ketchup. And I will."