When President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden walked into Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., last year, they weren't just grabbing a greasy lunch. To hear some tell it, their choice of condiments revealed their souls. Biden got his burger with Swiss cheese, jalapeños, and ketchup while Obama asked for one with cheddar and Dijon mustard. Yes, Dijon. Viewing this condiment preference as a sign of elitism, conservative pundits attacked. Fox News' Sean Hannity decried "President Poupon," and bloggers warned that Obama was hell-bent on colonizing the American palate with subversive foreign flavors.
They manned the ramparts 20 years too late. Dijon mustard, it turns out, is now as American as freedom fries. "Dijon is actually outpacing the overall mustard category," says Justin Parnell, brand manager for Grey Poupon, owned by Kraft Foods (KFT), which makes its mustard entirely from North American ingredients. According to Chicago-based research firm SymphonyIRI Group, Grey Poupon is the second most popular mustard in America—and growing. In July 2010, sales were estimated at $76 million, up 7 percent from the previous July. "Back in the early '80s, Dijon was a sign of having real aspirational tastes," says David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula. "Now it's entirely assimilated. That's the best of American food curiosity. At first it's considered too elitist, and then everyone says there's nothing to be afraid of."
We are now living in the golden age of condiments. The confluence of the recession and our ubiquitous food snobbery has touched off an arms race on shelves from Whole Foods (WFMI) to Wal-Mart (WMT). Where there was once merely Gulden's and Heinz (HNZ), there is now Robert Rothschild Farm's Lemon Wasabi Sauce and Melinda's banana ketchup. With budget-conscious consumers more likely to eat at home, a decade of exposure to fine dining and ethnic flavors—and Iron Chef reruns—has created a need for spreadable flavors at affordable prices. Condiment sales grew 9.4 percent from 2007 to 2009, becoming the second largest category in the specialty foods market behind the perennial stalwart, cheese. "Condiments are probably the biggest rotation of new products we have," says Mike McMahon, food buyer for Bristol Farms, a chain of 14 gourmet grocery stores in California. "There's always new flavor profiles, new diets, international influences, and ideas. The sky's the limit!" Chicago-based market research firm Mintel International Group notes that 36 mayonnaises have already entered the market this year—nearly three times as many as in all of 2009.
Condiment mania has now gone mainstream. Mintel values the U.S. market at $5.6 billion. Driven by its core audience, 18- to 34-year-olds, that market will swell to $7 billion by 2015, Mintel anticipates, as new whole-grain mustards, spicy ketchups, fruit-flavored salsas, blended aiolis, chutneys, and hot sauces hit grocery aisles. Like Reaganomics, high-end condiments trickle down—from glass bottles in specialty shops to squeeze bottles in supermarkets. Most make their entrance in the market at the biannual Fancy Food Show, which bestows the equivalent of an Oscar on the best branded spreadable sandwich toppings. Last July, Dulcet Cuisine's Mild Indian Curry Ketchup took home the condiment gold medal; the Oregon company's Moroccan Mustard nabbed silver. "A flavor will become popular, and other smaller companies will make that same flavor for their own products," explains Ron Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. "Larger companies such as Kraft will then notice it and keep an eye on sales. Once big companies see 10 to 20 small producers doing this, they'll pick it up." On average, Tanner says, it takes three to five years for a condiment to go from niche product to mass market. "When you look at the extra cost per serving," says Tanner, "it's not very much at all. It's not like you're buying smoked salmon or caviar."
One company on the front lines is Springfield (Ohio)-based Woeber's, a family business best known for yellow and spicy brown mustards. Now enjoying a Pabst Blue Ribbon-like renaissance, the 105-year-old mustard maker has expanded by 50 percent with flavors such as jalapeño, cranberry, and wasabi. It has launched a line of organic mustards and another of premium mustards—which it sells in glass jars—and acquired such beloved regional brands as New Jersey's Mr. Mustard.
This April, Woeber's also launched a line of the latest spreadable craze: flavored mayonnaises. Called Mayo Gourmet, it comes in varieties such as Kickin' Buffalo, Toasted Garlic, and Cool Dill. "I would say it's probably double or triple our expectations," says condiment scion Christopher Woeber, the company's operations manager and great-grandson of its founder. "Flavored mayo is fairly new, so we expected some mixed response. But it's been positive almost all across the board."
Woeber's private-label operation, which makes and packages condiments for other brands or retailers, has grown to 60 percent of its business. Private labels now make up nearly one-quarter of the U.S. condiment market and are growing faster than any other segment, according to Mintel. "People want cheaper, more specialized gourmet products," says Woeber. "It's like fashion. We're the H&M of condiments."
The current craze doesn't sit well with some condiment purists. Barry Levenson, curator of the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wis., sees promise in newly released blue cheese and raspberry mustards. However, he draws the line at chocolate mustard. "I can't see that going into grocery stores," he says. "It's just not going to happen." Let's give it three to five years.