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Heinz versus French's: How Leamington, Ont., got caught up in one of Canada's greatest food fights

We love ketchup in this country. In 2016, ‘the ketchup war’ meant that Canadians had to pick sides.

We love ketchup in this country. In 2016, ‘the ketchup war’ meant that Canadians had to pick sides

An illustration of a bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup on the left and an illustration of a bottle of French's tomato ketchup on the right, with "vs" between then.
Heinz versus French's: which brand of ketchup do you keep in your fridge? (The Ketchup War)

It's no secret that Canadians love ketchup: according to Kraft Heinz Canada, 87 per cent of us have a bottle in the fridge, and we consume more ketchup per capita than our American neighbours. We're also one of the only countries in the world that produces ketchup chips. But in 2016, the country became divided over the tasty tomato-based condiment. 

The Ketchup War is the story of French's versus Heinz and how the people of Leamington, Ont., (a.k.a. the Tomato Capital of Canada) got caught up in what might be the country's most patriotic food fight.

For more than 100 years, Leamington was home to the second-largest Heinz factory in the world. The plant employed around 1,000 workers, plus hundreds of others, indirectly, through the farms and greenhouses that grew tomatoes for Heinz. 

The town of Leamington might as well have been built by the ketchup industry. 

A very tall smokestack rises above a factory at sunset. the smokestack says "Heinz" in vertical letters.
Leamington, Ont. was home to the Heinz factory for more than 100 years. In 2014, the Heinz plant closed its doors. (The Ketchup War)

But in 2013, Heinz announced the factory would be closing its doors and moving its operations to the U.S. It was a gut punch for the community and led the town into economic turmoil. With more than 700 full-time workers laid off and farmers left with tomatoes dying on the vine, locals wondered who could come to their rescue.

Tom Keller stands in front of a large piece of farm machinery. He is wearing a black baseball cap and a blue golf shirt.
After the Heinz factory closed, farmer Tom Keller didn't have a contract to grow tomatoes for two years. "We were kind of surprised," he says in The Ketchup War. "I guess we didn't realize when the hammer was gonna fall." (The Ketchup War)

Enter French's. A long-time player in the condiment game, it's one of the best-known brands of prepared mustard in the world. 

The company saw Heinz's departure as an opportunity to move into the ketchup market while aligning itself with the patriotic ideal of supporting the Canadian farmer. Sure, it's also a U.S. company, but by employing Leamington residents, and later branding its bottles to highlight the fact that its ketchup was produced with 100 per cent Canadian tomatoes, it became the hero Leamington needed.

When an Orillia, Ont. construction worker named Brian Fernandez saw a bottle of French's ketchup at the grocery store, he posted on Facebook about his support for the made-in-Canada ketchup and went on with his day. 

A man in a red shirt sits at his kitchen table with a half full bottle of French's ketchup beside him and his smart phone in his hands. behind him is a white fridge and wooden cupboards.
"Small town contruction worker" Brian Fernandez accidentally started the Ketchup War. (Brent Hodge)

Then he got a call from a radio station in Vancouver: "How do you feel about your post going viral?" 

Fernandez's post had blown up. It had tens of thousands of shares and had made headlines across Canada. 

At the same time, Loblaws announced it was going to stop carrying French's ketchup due to low sales. Proud Canadians took to social media to demand that the grocery store keep the condiment on its shelves, and within 24 hours, Loblaws reversed its decision.

Thus, the ketchup war began. 

Heinz, which had dominated the Canadian ketchup market for decades, had never really had to compete with anybody else until then. For the first time, it had a true adversary. French's was eating into its profits north or the border, and Heinz had to figure out a way back into the hearts of Canadians. 

Watch The Ketchup War on CBC Gem. 

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