Actually, Salsa Dethroned Ketchup 20 Years Ago

The Internet exploded over news that salsa sales have bested ketchup, but George Constanza was complaining about this two decades ago.

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Close the border gates, cancel the DREAM Act, and torpedo immigration reform, because salsa sales have overtaken ketchup, screams the banner headline on the Drudge Report Thursday afternoon. The massive, all-caps splash (with an image of a sombrero overtop) links to an Associated Press story that notes that the salsa news, still just barely sinking in, is "just the start."

"These days, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns; sales of tortilla chips trump potato chips; and tacos and burritos have become so ubiquitously 'American,' most people don't even consider them ethnic," the AP's Suzette Laboy and J.M. Hirsch write. It's just another indicator of the changing demographics in a country that is now a quarter Hispanic.

But, as is turns out, salsa overtook ketchup over 20 years ago, and this is just the latest in long line of stories using culinary sales as a marker of demographic change.

As the New York Times reported way back in 1992: "ketchup, long the king of American condiments, has been dethroned. Last year, salsa ... took the condiment crown, outselling ketchup by $40 million in retail stores." David Weiss, the president of New York-based Packaged Facts Inc., the same market-research firm that the AP's quotes in its 2013 story, told the Times back then that "the taste for salsa is as mainstream as apple pie these days."

That same year, NPR said the salsa vs. ketchup trend told us "as much as any census finding." Here's Mark McEwen expressing his awe on CBS' "This Morning" from March 19, 1992: "And would you believe salsa now outsells ketchup in this country? Our nutritionist Audrey Cross, will be here to tell us how to enjoy Mexican food without feeling guilty…. Salsa!"

Even George Costanza knew this. "You know salsa is the number one condiment in America right now," he said on a 1992 episode of Seinfeld.

The next year, Washington Post visited a trade show and reported, "now that companies have embraced the fact that salsa is outselling catsup, the convention floor was filled with new salsas as well as the tortilla chips to dip into them. Heinz, no doubt shaking in its red boots, is even rolling out a salsa catsup."

But ketchup wasn't going to take this lying down. "Ketchup is enjoyed by people of all ages and it's served with all manner of cuisine. Salsa simply can never be as popular," Heinz President and Chief Executive Officer Anthony O'Reilly said in 1995.

Ahead of the millennium, 1999 saw another round of "salsa outsells ketchup stories," and by 2002 the Boston Globe felt this was such conventional wisdom that it lead a story with this: "It is, by now, a food cliche to say that salsa outsells ketchup in American supermarkets."

In 2004, the University of Pennsylvania's Warton School of Business posted an article on their website noting that with the rise in the Hispanic population, "marketers are scrambling harder than ever" to meet their needs. The headline: "Salsa Outselling Ketchup? Marketing to Hispanics Is Hot."

But Heinz's O'Reilly is probably right. As the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik pointed out in 2007, the numbers on sales are misleading since they measure dollar sales, and ketchup is vastly much less expensive per ounce than salsa. That year, ketchup trounced salsa in pounds sold, 329.8 million to 184.6 million. And most market research only looks at products sold in stores, missing the millions of gallons of ketchup sold through fast-food restaurants.

And as many food critics are quick to point out, the all-American products we put ketchup on—hamburgers and hot dogs—were themselves once imports themselves from Germany. French Fries trace their roots to Belgium.

Fear not, ketchup. Your place in America is secure, alongside salsa and now, sriracha.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.