EVERY weekday morning at 8:30, H. J. Heinz Company executives gather in a small room here at the Fremont, Ohio, plant. Laid out before them are dozens of plastic ice-cream dishes. The dishes are filled, not with ice cream but with ketchup.
Some executives sample a few dishes. The plant manager skips breakfast so he can taste each one, which represents a different hour of production. ``You can taste the difference,'' he says, between the ketchup prepared here and at Heinz's two other ketchup plants. Such are the traditions scrupulously observed at Fremont, which bills itself as the world's largest ketchup factory.
But like many grand traditions, this one is under attack. Even as Fremont keeps turning out ketchup, the red stuff is losing its status as America's No. 1 condiment. So ketchup producers have launched a counteroffensive, which is one reason that on a pleasant September day, Heinz is ushering a handful of reporters through its plant at Fremont.
The fly in ketchup's ointment is salsa. Americans are developing a taste for hotter foods. ``Ethnic foods gained in popularity,'' the United States Agriculture Department's quarterly magazine, FoodReview, pointed out in late 1992. ``Americans now use more salsa than catsup.''
``I'm not sure it [ketchup] is the all-American condiment anymore,'' adds Bob Burke, vice president of sales and marketing for salsa-maker Pace Foods Ltd. The San Antonio company is the No. 1 US salsa manufacturer.
Nonsense, the ketchup-makers counter. And just to prove it, Heinz released last month a survey from NPD Group in Park Ridge, Ill., showing that 97 percent of America's kitchens stock ketchup. Only salt, pepper, and sugar rated as high. Yellow mustard made it in 93 percent of US kitchens; salsa in only 51 percent. ``Ketchup,'' says Heinz spokeswoman Deb Magness, ``is still the king of condiments.''
The key is in how one counts. Americans for the past two years have spent more on Mexican sauces than on ketchup. The latest survey from Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market- research company, shows annual sales of Mexican sauces running at $680 million; ketchup is running behind at $423 million.
But salsa costs more than ketchup. In terms of how much Americans actually eat, ketchup is still far ahead: 569.2 million pints a year, according to Information Resources survey, compared with only 353 million pints of Mexican sauces. That's more than two pints of ketchup a year for each man, woman, and child in the country - especially the child. Heinz says its biggest consumers are under 12. The most likely ketchup targets: hamburgers, french fries, and hot dogs (in that order).
EMPLOYEES at the Fremont plant tend to dismiss the competition. For one thing, the survey figures pit ketchup against all Mexican sauces, not just salsa, they point out. ``I don't like hot,'' adds Tony Montagno, product manager at Fremont. ``I think ketchup is more versatile. Salsa is trendy.''
Still, the long-term trends are troubling for King Ketchup. The same Information Resources survey shows American consumption of the stuff is down 1.5 percent in the year that ended in July, compared with the same period a year ago. Mexican sauces, meanwhile, are up 11.3 percent. New companies are springing up to cater to America's hot tooth - from magazines such as Chile Pepper to extensive chile-related catalogs, including Mo Hotta-Mo Betta. Ever since Mo Hotta-Mo Betta started in 1989, the San Luis Obispo, Calif., company has doubled sales every year.
``Good trends,'' says Pace's Mr. Burke. ``I would very much expect that growth of 10 or 11 percent to continue.''
So ketchup producers are fighting back. Heinz, the Pittsburgh-based company that supplies just more than one-half the nation's ketchup, introduced a salsa ketchup in 1991. It is now test-marketing Heinz Hot, a tomato-based sauce that is 4 percent tabasco sauce. The new product, co-developed by tabasco-maker McIlhenny Company, marks the first time either it or Heinz has gone to another company for help developing a product.
The Fremont press tour, during the height of the tomato harvest, is another publicity outreach. The day is peppered with ketchup anecdotes. The equivalent of 24 tomatoes is stuffed into each 14-ounce bottle. The sauce is so thick that Heinz has calculated the average drop moves out of the bottle at a speed of 25 miles a year. The company adds a secret blend of spices to its ketchup, known only to 10 to 15 Heinz employees. (``Cloves,'' declares a visiting food-magazine writer. ``It's partly cloves,'' concedes a Heinz employee.)
The most recent move to spice up the red stuff is actually a return to ketchup's roots. Ketchup originated in the Orient (the name derived, perhaps, from the Malayan word ``kechap'') and was made back then of brine, pickled fish, or shellfish. Some 400 years later, English sailors discovered the sauce in Singapore and brought it back with them. English cooks approximated the recipe with their own ingredients: mushrooms, walnuts, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Jane Austen knew about it. Charles Dickens wrote about it.
An American visitor in England, Henry Heinz, also tasted the stuff and decided, in 1876, to bring it to the United States. (Mr. Heinz, incidentally, coined the term ``catsup'' to market his lower-cost Duquesne brand; the higher-priced Imperial and Keystone brands were called ``ketchup.'') The rich red sauce, marketed all over the world, eventually became America's king of condiments.
It still is, sort of. But the king is clearly worried. The competition just gets hotter and hotter.