Making Ketchup Dreams Come True

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Have you ever made something so good that you thought, I should bottle this and sell it! For most of us, that’s just a passing fancy. But Erika Kerekes, a working mom and food blogger in Santa Monica, CA, actually did it and just launched her line of Not Ketchup condiments with three flavors: cherry chipotle, blueberry white pepper and smoky date.

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{Photo of Erika Kerekes by Christina Peters Photography}

It’s “not” ketchup because the Food & Drug Administration has ruled that condiments without tomatoes can’t be labeled “ketchup.” (Of course the FDA is wrong, and ketchup has been made for centuries with all manner of fruit.) But it’s delicious by any name. Here’s how Erika got it from her kitchen to store shelves.

When did you first realize you had an idea for a product you could sell?

I’d taken the kids on our annual cherry-picking trip up to

[Southern California’s] Leona Valley, where we picked 30 pounds of cherries. After I’d made pie and cobbler and jam, I still had 15-plus pounds left. So I started thinking about what else I could do with the cherries … and somehow I hit on ketchup. I think it came to me in a dream, quite literally.

I knew it was a winning idea when my husband tasted it and said, “Wow!” He hates tomato ketchup, but he’s loved every flavor of Not Ketchup I’ve put in front of him.

Not Ketchup started your kitchen, but you recruited experts to help you get it ready for prime time. Who’s on the team?

I knew I didn’t want to make it in small batches in a commercial kitchen — if I was going to do this, I was going to plan for large-scale output.

First, I hired Barry Weinstein, an experienced food technologist, to help me turn my home recipe into a formula a factory could use to make the sauce in an industrial setting. From him, I learned about food safety — there are things you have to do when you make a product that’s going to sit in a bottle on a shelf for 12 months that you wouldn’t have to do in your own kitchen. I also had to source the main fruit ingredients, which ended up coming from different companies up and down the West coast.

Real fruit had to be the first ingredient on the label. And the ingredient list had to stay short and have only pronounceable ingredients.

Then I found a co-packer (also called a contract manufacturer) to manufacture the sauce from the formula Barry and I developed. Heiden’s Foods in Fullerton, CA, is one of the few co-packers where startups making smaller batches are welcome. Owners Dawne and Derek Walker helped me understand the nuances of getting all the necessary approvals, having all the pieces in place and controlling manufacturing costs.

What were the biggest challenges?

The hardest thing was sourcing the fruit ingredients. In a smaller factory like Heiden’s, I didn’t have the option of starting with fresh fruit, because it takes too much time and capacity to boil off the water that’s in fresh fruit. So I had to find ingredients that met my strict standards (no sulfites, no added sugar), worked in our formulas, delivered the taste and texture I wanted, and were available in relatively small batches. I made a lot of phone calls and did a bit of begging. Ultimately I found great suppliers who were happy to bend their rules to get me what I needed.

The rest of it was relatively easy because I was working with Barry and his 30-plus years of experience developing food products. I said, “I want it to taste like this and pour like this,” and he knew exactly how to get there based on my original recipe, the sample I gave him, and his knowledge of industrial ingredients.

Where did you refuse to compromise?

Originally I wanted the product to contain only unprocessed ingredients, but ultimately the only way we were able to maintain the right texture and flavor profile for the 12-month shelf life was to add a thickener (xanthan gum) and natural flavors.

But I stood firm on a few things. Real fruit had to be the first ingredient on the label. I used two unprocessed (and relatively expensive) sweeteners: demerara sugar and honey. And the ingredient list had to stay short and have only pronounceable ingredients.

Are there plans to offer a certified-organic version of Not Ketchup?

I hope to offer an organic line once the products are selling well and the brand is established. However, it’s already an expensive product in the ketchup category at $8.99 — the fruit is very expensive compared to tomatoes. So we’ll have to see if the market will support the added cost of producing it with certified-organic ingredients.

Not Ketchup is available at five stores in Los Angeles, and you can order it from Not Ketchup’s online store. It’s great on burgers, used in glazes on grilled fish and poultry, or as part of cheese plate. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to trying the Cherry Chipotle on sandwiches with leftover Carnitas de Lia.

2017-05-19T00:18:57+00:00