Brand chases Hidden Valley in ranch race

Sir Kensington’s introduces 4 versions of the dressing

It's a good time to be in the condiment game. Last July, McCormick & Co. paid $4.2 billion for French's mustard and other pantry staples from Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC.

Ketchup made headlines, too. In April, Unilever Plc bought the artisanal New York ketchup company Sir Kensington's. At the time, Bloomberg reported the price at around $140 million.

Now Sir Kensington's -- makers of not only ketchup but also sriracha mayonnaise and "fabannaise," a vegan eggless mayo -- has a new product: ranch dressing. It will offer four varieties of the creamy, herb-flecked dip: classic, avocado oil classic, buffalo, and "Pizza Ranch," which is infused with the flavors of a classic cheese slice.

For Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan, the 31-year-old founders of Sir Kensington's, it's an ideal addition to their portfolio. The brand started in the kitchen of Norton's off-campus apartment at Brown University in 2008, and they officially debuted in 2010.

There are 15 products in total, not counting the new ranch options. Their boldly spiced ketchups, mustards, and mayonnaise were labeled as all-natural, without such ingredients as high fructose corn syrup, and were quickly adopted by shoppers as a next-level comfort food staple at a time when the country's obsession with food was exponentially increasing.

"When we start thinking about new products, we ask ourselves two questions," Norton said. "Will it help us bring integrity to an ordinary, overlooked food? And will it help us achieve our business objective, which is to be America's leading natural condiment brand?" Sir Kensington's has become the No. 1 condiment brand at Whole Foods Inc. and in natural-food stores, where it has outpaced sales of Heinz organic ketchup.

The four ranch dressings were introduced at the Natural Products Expo West 2018 last week, in Anaheim, Calif., and will be available on Amazon.com, Thrive Market, and Vitacost starting in April. The 9-ounce bottles, made from recyclable plastic, are designed with extra-wide tops to maximize their dip potential. They'll sell for $4.99 each; the avocado oil version will cost $6.99.

Like ketchup, the ranch world has been dominated by one brand. In this case, it's Hidden Valley, a subsidiary of Clorox Co., which represents more than 51 percent of the category. In the $2 billion shelf-stable dressing category, ranch makes up 36 percent, or $719 million, according to a January Nielson report. Italian dressing comes in second, at 17 percent.

Norton and Ramadan see Sir Kensington's audience, whom they call "evolved eaters," as a key ranch-dressing demographic. Even more than ketchup, people love ranch, albeit sometimes secretly.

"They see it as a guilty indulgence," observes Norton. "They might be embarrassed about it, but they still love it and they still buy it."

For Sir Kensington's, the ability to make a natural version of a product, using supermarket ingredients that are easy to pronounce, is key. "Look at the ingredients in a supermarket bottle of ranch," Norton said. "It looks like an advanced science experiment. Our credo is that if we can't make it in our kitchen, we won't sell it."

The development of the ranch recipes took about eight months in the company's kitchen, a section of its offices in New York that looks pretty much like a very well-stocked home kitchen. They had the input of a professional chef, Craig Koketsu of Quality Meats, a self-proclaimed "ranch nerd." To address dietary restrictions -- and to shake things up -- Sir Kensington's ranch dressings are dairy-free.

Norton and Ramadan came up with the idea of ranch dressing before the acquisition by Unilever. "In theory, they could have said 'Don't do this.' But they've been very supportive of taking the brand in a new direction," said Ramadan.

As of now, Sir Kensington's has no plans to produce the 5-liter metal kegs of ranch that caused a social media frenzy when Hidden Valley introduced them last fall. But they are planning to roll out portable, 2-ounce cup sizes fans can carry around in case they come across some chicken fingers.

"They'll be wide enough for dipping," said Laura Villevieille, vice president of product, who created the ranch recipe.

SundayMonday Business on 03/11/2018

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