In the beginning, there was the octagonal glass bottle. Then came the plastic squeezable bottle, then the recyclable plastic squeeze bottle.
Within three months, H.J. Heinz Co. plans to introduce the next rung on ketchup's evolutionary ladder: the "trap cap," which is meant to solve an age-old condiment conundrum how to reach the ketchup without first enduring a rush of watery ketchup plasma.
"We're the ketchup people, and we should be the ones out there first with the newest and the best technology," said Mike McMahon, senior manager for research and development, who oversaw the trap-cap project.
McMahon's team spent 18 months researching a way to solve a problem technically known as syneresis, or the natural settling process that causes a watery substance to rise to the top of pureed fruits and vegetables.
For years, ketchup lovers have battled the problem by giving the bottle a few shakes before using it or test-firing over a napkin or sink. Heinz figured if it could conquer syneresis, it could win more customers in a market it already dominates.
"We're trying to retool our way of doing things," McMahon said. "If you have trouble getting the package open, or getting the product out, people remember that."
The company's first idea to use a pump to pull ketchup from the bottle the same way a liquid soap dispenser works turned out to be too expensive. Another plan to design a bottle that opened from the bottom was considered too radical a change for the bottle's familiar shape.
The new cap, developed in conjunction with Seaquist Closures in Mukwonago, Wis., is taller than the old one, allowing space for a stubby straw that extends from the hole in the center. When the bottle is turned upside-down, the water fills the cap while the slower-moving ketchup oozes in the straw and out the hole. When the bottle is turned right-side up, the water mixes with the ketchup and falls back into the bottle.
Heinz believes the new cap will also provide better "suckback" action, pulling more ketchup inside and eliminating the unsightly crust that builds around the lid.
The company owns 54.6 percent of the ketchup market share on annual sales of $279.9 million, dwarfing its closest competitor, Hunt's, which has an 18.9 percent market share on sales of $95.3 million.
But it does retool its best-known product from time to time.
In 1983, it introduced the squeezable plastic bottle to replace the pounding and cajoling associated with its glass bottle. Plastic was such a hit that Heinz eventually phased out glass containers on retail shelves, though glass still dominates at restaurants. Recyclable plastic made its debut in 1991.
Company spokeswoman Deb Magness said trap-caps won't appear on the glass bottles because the cylindrical shape cuts down on syneresis.
"We're proud of our glass design and consider it an icon image," said Mcahon. "But you have to be in touch with the times."
Competitors say the new cap isn't quite the innovation that Heinz is making it out to be. A spokeswoman for Del Monte, which owns about 9 percent of the U.S. ketchup market, said her company has used a special syneresis-busting cap for three years.
McMahon scoffed at the Del Monte cap, which he said was a flawed design that doesn't work.
"It does absolutely nothing," he said, adding that Hunt's recently abandoned the same cap. "It's just totally nonfunctional."
A spokeswoman for Hunt's declined to comment.