From toilet paper to hand sanitizer to disinfecting wipes, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some major shortages across the United States. While supermarket aisles may have finally returned to their fully stocked state, restaurants across the country are now facing a new and uniquely American shortage — ketchup.
"They are really sweating over it. I mean, it's costing a lot," says Heather Haddon, a restaurant reporter for The Wall Street Journal. "It's, you know, a service issue. So for these restaurant owners, it's not a laughing matter."
Initially, ketchup sales were booming. Retail ketchup sales were 15% higher last year than in 2019. But, with restaurants reopening, the popular condiment is running out fast.
"Everyone was sheltering at home, and manufacturers really prioritized grocery customers. So everyone was, you know, eating their burgers and fries at home," Haddon tells NPR's All Things Considered.
A big part of the problem is the need for single-use, individual ketchup packets for takeout and delivery, as opposed to big glass bottles that sit on top of restaurant tables.
"The manufacturers have to shift production back, and that is not something that can happen quickly or easily," she adds.
Haddon says prices for packets rose by 13%, which has caused restaurants owners to divvy up ketchup into a single-serving containers themselves.
Haddon says "some general managers were having to, you know, go out to Costco or other wholesalers and just pull bottles off the shelf."
One of the main challenges, she tells NPR, is finding alternatives for the most loyal of Heinz fans.
"Heinz really is the favorite, so they have nearly 70% of the U.S. retail market share for ketchup," she says. "People do really love it and are pretty loyal to it."
But help is on the way. The country's largest ketchup supplier, Heinz, promised it would increase its ketchup production by 25%. The company will produce at least 12 billion packets to catch up.