Curtice Brothers: A Condiment Startup Takes On the Giants

OU Kosher: I’d like to start by asking you for a general overview of Curtice Brothers and about you and your role as head of international sales.

Curtice Brothers History

OU Kosher certified Curtice Brothers in Times Square in 1923

Curtice Brothers billboard in Times Square circa 1923

Alex Fisher: Curtice Brothers makes organic and natural condiments. The company actually started in 1868, and we are proud to say that we are the oldest ketchup company in the world. The brand’s roots go back to 1868. It was Curtice Brothers, founded by two Italian immigrants in Rochester, NY, who made America’s first ketchup. Unfortunately, in the late 30s and early 1940s, Curtice Brothers faced problems and closed its operation.

Competing with the Big Guys

Now, fast forward to 2014 and Curtice CEO, Mario, had an epiphany. He was traveling a lot, and during one of his trips to Oman, he ordered some ketchup with his breakfast. The hotel brought over the ketchup we all know, and he had this realization: why is it that this one brand is everywhere around the world? Why is it the same everywhere he goes? He brought this idea back to Europe and shared it with me over coffee. 

Mario believed that the ketchup business was ripe for disruption. The quality of our food has been rising over the last decades but the quality of the condiments stood still. There is 25% sugar and under 20% tomatoes in the Ketchup brands you know.

Let me give you an example of another industry where a disruptor took over quite some market share.

As gin became more popular, bartenders and mixologists realized that people would be willing to pay more for a premium tonic to enhance their gin and tonic experience. That’s where Fever Tree, a brand created by ex-bartenders, came in. They crafted a superior tonic and quickly became the market leader in the USA, displacing Schweppes in many locations. While Schweppes has tried to release premium products to compete, it’s still made with cheap ingredients. I think, there’s plenty of room for us to grow and I believe we can make our mark and become a major player in the industry.

Mario then admits that disrupting the condiments market would require a smart approach. So he and a few other entrepreneurs decided to take on the challenge in 2014. 

I come from a background in the restaurant industry, having owned and worked in various restaurants. Mario and his colleagues shared their idea with friends, who agreed that there was no one in the hospitality sector who serves a better ketchup.

We set off on this kind of crazy journey in 2014 and, to give you a quick rundown, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. But here we are in 2023, operating in 34 countries around the world. We’re present in various markets, including the USA, China (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea), and the Nordics (Sweden, Denmark, Norway).

OU Kosher: When you say you’re in all of those markets is that  in retail or hospitality or both?  

Alex Fisher: We’re a bit of both, depending on the market and the strength of the incumbent players. For instance, in China, we found it easy to sell into hotels since premium and luxurious offerings are highly valued there. This is a premium product, and we sell and package it accordingly.

Most of them are in Europe, where our main market is. Our hotel clients are typically 5-star hotels, such as the Edition ( Marriotts) Hotel brand, Four Seasons, Pullman, Sofitel, and high-end Pan Pacific hotels. These hotels always strive to elevate their brand and provide the best experience for their guests, and that includes the food they serve. They would source their beef from a single farm in Omaha, for instance, and explain the story to their guests, making the high price of their menu items justifiable.

As for how we package our products for hospitality, it depends on the establishment. In a more laid-back French brasserie style restaurant like Balthazar, for example, they may serve ketchup in a small white ramekin (bowl). We have a bag-in-box product that sits in the kitchen, and they dispense it into the ramekins. In a high-end place, they may use small 2 1/2 ounce jars that they put on a plate on the table with a teaspoon. On the other hand, our retail products come in similar-shaped bottles but are bigger, around 270 ml, or about 9.5-10 ounces. That’s our retail bubble.

Curtice Brothers and OU Kosher Certification

OU Kosher Certified Curtice Brothers's Certifications

Slide from Curtice Brothers marketing presentation highlighting their certifications and distinguishing label claims.

OU Kosher: When did your company decide to get kosher certification? Was that at the beginning?

Alex Fisher: No, I think it was when we decided to go into the US originally, which was around 2016-2017. An investor in Curtice who was helping us get into the US suggested that being OU kosher is viewed as a more premium product even for non-kosher people. That was the main driver behind why we got it.

OU Kosher: Have any of your retailers asked specifically about certification?  Has that helped you?

Alex Fisher: I think it does help open the door, whether it’s the deciding factor for a retailer that is not a kosher place, then I think the answer is probably no, but I think it definitely adds to the selling point of it because if they have another product that’s not kosher and they have ours that is kosher, then they’re more likely to bring in more people. Let me give you an example. In London, there’s a place called St. John’s Wood, and it’s quite a Jewish area over there. There’s a deli there called Panzer’s Deli, and they’re not necessarily a kosher place, but they’re not stupid, and they know the more products they have that are kosher, the more people they’re gonna be able to bring in. So they listed us straight away.

OU Kosher: They took you in as a retailer?

Alex Fisher: Correct, and I’ve actually got a beautiful picture. The lady there is a big fan of ours, and she made this beautiful big display of all of our products right next to their deli counter, so by all their meats and cheeses. It was a very proud moment being able to go in there with my dad and my grandfather and see the Curtice Brothers ketchup there.

OU Kosher: Did you have to make any revisions to your recipe to get kosher-certification?

Alex Fisher: Yes, there were a few things but it was mostly around the vinegar. If I remember correctly, we use balsamic vinegar. It was just a question of finding a product kosher balsamic vinegar producer in Italy where we currently produce. We try to be as sustainable as possible. So we like to bring all of our ingredients in from Italy. If we can bring it in closer like maybe 100 mile radius from our actual producer that’s  even better. And then we had a couple of test productions to make sure that the flavor profile was still exactly the same.

OU Kosher: Did the OU help you with that substitution or did you do the legwork yourself?

Alex Fisher: We found a supplier that we felt we could work with and we sent their certification to OU Kosher to make sure they were happy with it. I’m very aware that the OU has a zero tolerance for people trying to put something through as kosher that’s not really kosher. And the result of that is you have a higher standard product. 

The Value and Importance of Sustainability

OU Kosher: In terms of sustainability, how much effort do you put into ensuring that packaging and ingredients are sustainable?

Alex Fisher: We do spend quite a bit of time on it. We work with a producer whose production facility is powered by solar and uses regenerative farming techniques. We also work with bees to help pollinate tomato plants, which are important for our product. We work hard to ensure our packaging is made from recycled materials, and our new squeeze bottle is 100% recyclable, including the cap, which is  suitable for curbside recyclable.

I think more attention needs to be paid to sustainability going forward. It’s something that hotels, in particular, are concerned about. When I send them a sustainability report, they’re over the moon because many bigger companies aren’t able to do things that shift the needle.

Growth in the Coming Year

OU Kosher: What are your plans in terms of growth targets?

Alex Fisher: We are planning to expand our product line and increase distribution around the world. We also plan to continue our efforts to promote sustainability and reduce our carbon footprint.

This year we intend to triple our sales from last year. We are growing our team quite substantially. At the end of last year, our people count was 19, and I think by the end of the year, we’ll probably be 23 or 24 employees and reps. We’ve got a branding person on board now, and we’ve brought someone else on to help with the logistics side of things because that’s becoming a really, really difficult role. And then, of course, guys like myself do sales. 

And then it’s a case of finding more joint venture partners. For example, in China, we work with a fantastic joint venture partner there, same as in Sweden and in the Nordics, because I think with places that are outside Western Europe, and when I say Western Europe, I kind of mean France, Spain, Portugal, and across to the UK side of things, you need boots on the ground; you need people who understand how that market works.

OU Kosher: And your percentage of hospitality to retail, is it primarily retail?

Alex Fisher: I would say we’re kind of a three-legged stool. It’s about 30% online, probably about another 30% retail, and about 40% hospitality. But again, they kind of shift by a couple of percentage points each way. But in an ideal world, we would love everything to be about 33%. 

For example, when we didn’t have much retail or online business pre-pandemic, and then all of a sudden, it was like hospitality was a ghost town, and we were like, great, let’s set up online stores for every country where we were previously before and find fulfillment centers and things like that. It made us really look at our business and go, well, hold on a minute here. We are vulnerable because we just focus on hospitality, hospitality, hospitality, and if hospitality isn’t around, then what do we do? So we worked really, really hard to bolster our retail team and bolster our online team as well from that.

The Challenges of Selling Online

OU Kosher: How are your online sales doing?

Alex Fisher: It’s probably the toughest place to sell. Logistic costs are rising. And so do the costs for ads to win over customers. 

OU Kosher: Do you have kosher in your product descriptions on Amazon? You should know that they’re very interested in kosher food. We’ve had a lot of conversations with them, and it’s important to make that clear online. 

OU Kosher: Are you considering becoming kosher for Passover? Passover is a massive market here in the US, and we get a spike of over 300% of our consumer traffic during that short three-week period. It’s definitely an opportunity. 

Alex Fisher: That’s a good question. I don’t have an answer right now, but we’ll get back to you on that. 

OU Kosher: What would you like kosher consumers to know about your product? If you were in the room with one of them right now, what would you tell them?

Alex Fisher: I would want them to know that we are the healthiest kosher ketchup on the market. Low sugar, low salt, all flavor.

OU Kosher: Hopefully consumers will gravitate to your products for those reasons.  Thanks so much for your time.  And best of luck this year.

OU Kosher Staff