For a long, long time, whether you were at a cookout, restaurant or grocery store, mustard was the yellow stuff and ketchup was the red stuff; a small handful of brands and labels recognizable since childhood. Period. Mustard was the first to break out, and there has been an ever-growing array of flavors and additions available, forever elevating the yellow stuff to a whole new world of taste. But for a while ketchup remained just the red stuff. This fact hit the right nerve one day in 2012 for three friends enrolled in a class called New Venture Planning, at University of Oregon’s MBA program. They were sitting in a favorite Eugene campus bar, discussing what they might want to do for their class project, but also bemoaning the fact that the delicious basket of tater tots they were sharing was being ruined by “lousy ketchup. ”
Jessica Zutz Hilbert, one of the three friends, remembers the moment. “We thought, we could do better.” And so their project idea was born. Wanting to salvage a basket of tater tots lead to the creation of Red Duck Foods. Oh, and where did the name come from? Red refers to the color of ketchup; the duck, the namesake of the school’s sports teams (“Go Ducks!”). Hilbert says they went beyond the business plan and project details required, and came to class for their final presentation with samples of the actual product (because “we were going for the A”). It was a big hit with their classmates and the questions they received weren’t about development of product after graduation, “it was more like ‘are you going to drop out of school now to do this?’” In the spring of 2013, a successful Kickstarter campaign – with a rocking 600 initial backers – enabled them to launch what became their three signature ketchup flavors: Classic, Spicy, and Curry. It didn’t take long for their product to catch on.
“When people try it, they get it,” says Hilbert. She says it’s the essential tomato taste that has been missing all those years from the-red-stuff ketchup. In addition, theirs is uniquely organic. By early 2015, they relocated their entire operation to Portland, in order to be able to scale up their production to meet the ever-increasing demand. Red Duck ketchups are now in more than 350 stores; mostly along the west coast, but also in the Dean & DeLuca chain, which includes stores in Manhattan. “Our friends in New York can get their Red Duck ketchup fix, now.” Hilbert and her cohorts believe one of the best parts about being in Portland is the sense of community, especially around food. June 5th is National Ketchup Day (who knew?), and to celebrate, they approached Coalition Brewing with the idea of making a beer with ketchup for the occasion. They, of course, took them samples of ketchup, and the brewers were won over. An entire beer/ketchup event took place that included music, food from other local purveyors and not one but two different brews – one made with the spicy ketchup, one with the curry. Their goal? “Ketchup Domination,” says Hilbert with a laugh. “Now you can put ketchup on everything and people won’t look down on you.” *photos from redduckfoods.com