That picnic table isn't getting smaller - just fuller. And it's not burgers and bratwurst pushing plates to the edge.
Instead, it's new bottles and bowls holding dips and dressings in an array of exotic new flavors and forms. Consider: French's GourMayo, Heinz Ketchup Kick'rs, Hellmann's Dippin' Sauce, Ranch Up! by Wish-bone, Party Bowls from Tostitos.
Hankering yet for some good old mustard?
For sure, that staple is still in many a refrigerator door. But in the midst of condiment season, Americans are also slathering on some new sauces.
Just what accounts for this invasion of flavors and "more convenient" dispensers? In a word, money, say food experts. In a few more words, consumers' desire for cheap, easy, and new products.
"Everybody has been to the Hard Rock Café once," says Joe Derochowski, national sales manager for NPD Foodworld, a market-research firm. "At the end of the day, we like to try new things."
Manufacturers understand this aspect of the Ameri- can psyche and are eager to mine it - and to feed sales of home-prepared foods.
Americans are eating out more, and even when they do stay in, meal preparation is limited, says Harry Balzer, a vice president with the NPD Group, of which Foodworld is a part. That means static condiment sales, leaving manufacturers jostling for a piece of the market.
"That's why you're seeing all these innovations," he says. "Companies are looking to provide new options ... to grab share."
For example, Heinz, which owns 60 percent of the total ketchup market, says spokesman Robin Teets, hit gold recently with its Easy Squeeze! bottle, an upside-down model. The bottle ensures that "your ketchup is always ready when you are," according to the company's website.
Easy Squeeze! claimed 10 percent of Heinz's overall share of that market last year. Then in the spring of 2002, Heinz launched Ketchup Kick'rs.
In Hot & Spicy, Zesty Garlic, and Smokey Mesquite flavors, Kick'rs have only about 1 to 2 percent of the total ketchup market.
Hoping to increase that percentage, Heinz this summer decided to stack its innovations by offering the Hot & Spicy variety in an Easy Squeeze! bottle.
Likewise, French's GourMayo is doing well in its first summer, having claimed about 65 percent of the flavored-mayonnaise market - a new category in itself. As for the mayonnaise market overall, Kraft has a 43 percent dollar share, while Hellmann's has 40 percent.
Developed to increase share for French's Foods, GourMayo works because it doesn't directly compete with mustard, the company's mainstay, says Marc Birnbaum, director of new initiatives for French's Foods.
Both Mr. Teets and Mr. Birnbaum believe their products will continue to do well.
And if they don't?
"Not everything resonates," Teets admits.
But he says companies have to continue to pursue "the course of innovation," adding that it's the way businesses grow.
"Americans will try [the new products] and decide," Mr. Balzer says. "For the most part, we'll see a lot of them go off the shelf. And the companies that are offering them will come out with new products."
But some new flavor may become indispensable, and that keeps companies spending millions to develop and market new products. "I don't think it happens often, but it does happen and you can't predict which one it's going to happen to," Balzer says.
Teets speaks of "flavor trends." A decade ago the craze was honey - from butter to mustard - then salsa.
Now, many in the industry say hot-and-spicy is the fab flavor, perhaps an extension of the salsa rage. Growing ethnic populations and experimental baby boomers may be the cause, says Birnbaum.
And although few food experts will venture a guess at the next trend, most agree it will aim to make consumers' lives zestier - and easier. Most of all, it'll be new.
"If you think about what will drive changes, it's money, time, and new," Balzer says. "New is the easiest one to do."