When Loblaw announced on Tuesday that it was restoring French’s ketchup to its shelves, it was hailed as a victory for everything from the power of social media to the Canadian working class.
The force of the reaction may seem puzzling. But the grocer’s decision, reached just a day after it “delisted” the French’s brand due to what it said was low demand, has made a folk hero of the Canadian-sourced condiment.
And yet, if the tale has ended happily it has also highlighted a gnawing anxiety about the loss of blue-collar jobs in Canada’s rural and industrial heartland.
The French’s ketchup is made from Leamington, Ont., tomatoes, the kind that were left to wither after Heinz closed its plant in the town two years ago.
“This whole thing has awoken a monster,” said Taras Natyshak, an NDP MPP for the region that grows the tomatoes in French’s ketchup.
“We don’t need to rely on India. We don’t need to rely on China. We can make our own food, and we can do it well.”
The furor traces its beginning to the shuttering of a Heinz tomato processing plant in Leamington. The iconic ketchup maker had recently been purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and another fund – a round of restructuring saw several plants closed across North America. In Leamington, a company town with a tomato-shaped kiosk downtown, 740 jobs were lost.
In January, a competitor saw an opportunity: French’s, long associated with yellow mustard, announced that it would be using only Leamington-area tomatoes in its relatively new ketchup line.
Brian Fernandez, a construction worker from Orillia, Ont., noticed the gesture. After buying a bottle of French’s at the grocery store, he researched its Canadian bona fides online. On Feb. 23, he posted a vow on Facebook to abandon Heinz in favour of the upstart condiment.
The post went viral – 43,000 people shared it within a day, and media outlets began writing stories about Mr. Fernandez’s ketchup crusade.
“I think it had a lot to do with the common people,” he said. “Ketchup is made by blue-collar workers. They don’t get much credit, don’t get the accolades.”
Whatever the reason, his sentiment touched a nerve. Mr. Natyshak proposed switching from Heinz to French’s in the cafeteria at Queen’s Park, a gesture that garnered a fresh wave of media attention.
French’s president Elliott Penner says that Canadian sales of their ketchup have increased 400 per cent in recent weeks.
So advocates were baffled when Loblaw said on Monday it was dropping the brand from its stores due to lack of demand. Some muttered darkly about an effort to boost sales of its own President’s Choice ketchup line, or a deal with Heinz.
“Companies make decisions all the time, and we don’t always understand them,” Mr. Penner said. “We saw the consumer support we were getting and we always felt it was always a matter of time before we were let back in.”
By now, the political support for French’s had become bipartisan. Mike Colle, a firebrand Liberal MPP, proposed a boycott of Loblaw. “I think your company has made a huge miscalculation and underestimated the value that we put on supporting local foods and local jobs,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, the company gave in with astonishing speed, acknowledging the outrage it had caused. “We’ve heard our Loblaws customers,” said Kevin Groh, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. vice-president for corporate affairs and communications. “We will re-stock French’s ketchup and hope that the enthusiasm we are seeing in the media and on social media translates into sales of the product.”
Mr. Fernandez was “ecstatic” to hear the news. “It goes to show that Canadians aren’t passive people,” he said. “It’s good to see that Canadians stand up. And we’re proud – we’re beating our chest.”
The Orillia resident will receive a plaque in the provincial legislature next week for his contribution to the ketchup cause. And Mr. Penner has promised to entertain Mr. Fernandez and his family in Toronto the same night.
Mr. Natyshak called it a victory for public opinion. “There’s no question that it was a massive campaign – online campaign and social-media campaign – that forced them to do this. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
For Mr. Colle, it also represents a triumph for the humble tomato.
Born in Italy, the Toronto politician says that relishing the vegetable (which is technically a fruit) is part of his identity. Tomatoes are, after all, the main ingredient of tomato sauce.
“I’m a real tomato guy,” he says. “It’s a bit of a passion of mine, I guess you could say.”
Flush with this success, Mr. Colle has set his sights on other victories. Next week, he will introduce a private member’s bill to make the tomato Ontario’s official vegetable and make July 15 Tomato Day across the province.
The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2016 1:32PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2016 8:07AM EDT