The CEO of a large American company was recently quoted as saying, "We’re just trying to keep up with demand, it’s been a really crazy time for us."
Strangely enough, he wasn’t referring to toilet paper, hand gel or canned goods. Rather, he was discussing condiment packets, those individual-sized containers you routinely receive a handful of at the drive-thru window. With so many restaurants currently not offering dine-in service owing to COVID-19, call for the thin, rectangular packets has gone through the roof in the past 11 months, a reported 300 per cent increase in certain parts of the continent.
"Single serve packets are definitely selling a lot more than normal," says Dan Scott of Food Service Direct, which markets a wide variety of condiment packs, including one called mayochup (reached at the office, Scott describes it as a mayonnaise-ketchup hybrid). "Not only for takeout but also for more hygienic, dine-in operations, as obviously diners no longer want to use a shared bottle of ketchup, mustard, etc."
Trif Lambos of the Dairi-Wip Drive-In at 383 Marion St. recognized the change almost immediately.
Since last April, people who head to the "Wip" for a bite haven’t been able to set foot inside the 63-year-old burger joint’s glassed-in vestibule. Instead, their order is taken in the parking lot meaning when their meal arrives, they aren’t able to slather their fries with salt and vinegar the way they did previously, by reaching for dispensers normally parked on an entryway, pick-up counter. Instead they’re provided with condiment packets Lambos and his staff toss in their bag or, if they’re a true Dairi-Wip aficionado, box.
"Yes, I have noticed a difference here at the Wip," Lambos says, when asked whether he can confirm our mustard-stained research. "Since COVID we have had to adapt to a new system. We do not allow any customers to enter our premises and because of this we now put extra take-out condiments with every order."
That brings us to Chris Harne, a 38-year-old Pennsylvanian who is fairly certain his personal cache of condiment packets — somewhere in the thousands — is the largest collection of its kind on the planet.
"I don’t know of another person who would even have a quarter of what I have," Harne says with a chuckle, when reached at home in Kennett Square, located in the southeast corner of the state. "Ketchup makes up a big part as does hot sauce but I also have a surprising amount of lemon juice."
"Surprising" might be the understatement of the day. Coin collectors? Sure. Stamps? You betcha. Sports cards? Most definitely. But condiments? Who would relish such a thing?
Harne figures he was 20 when he first got into his unique hobby. A collector by nature – by the time he was 12 he was already well-known in the Mad magazine community – he was initially attracted to condiments by the thrill of the hunt, something he felt was missing following the advent of eBay, which to him made unearthing holy grails "far too easy."
"I really liked the idea of collecting condiments because it was something pretty much unaffected by online marketplaces, given the fact they were free for the most part," he explains, figuring the closest he’s been to Winnipeg was when he took a seasonal job at a sugar beet producer near Drayton, N.D. "Plus, I quickly found out you could build up a pretty sizable collection if you were willing to put in the legwork."
A bookseller in his "real" life, Harne was able to combine his two passions by hitting the highway in search of valuable tomes, while at the same time keeping his eyes peeled for roadside diners that might offer packets he’d never come across before.
"Heinz is obviously a major player in the condiment world – I have dozens of variations of their products alone - but in truth there’s some pretty crazy stuff out there. Go into some of these mom and pop restaurants and you’re like, ‘In whose garage are they packaging this stuff up?,’ they’re just so strange and low budget," he says, directing our attention to his online gallery (www.condimentpacket.com), specifically a generic looking packet simply labeled "brown sauce." (How tantalizing!)
For the most part, Harne has been able to add to his assortment on the cheap. If he’s at an eatery and spots something new or out of the ordinary – "original salad cream" is one example - he’ll kindly ask an employee if he can have a specimen or three for his collection. They almost always reply affirmatively when he tells them why, though every so often he is forced to order a burger or hotdog.
"Sometimes there’s a person who considers themselves to be the gatekeeper of the condiments who’s all no, ours aren’t free for the taking."
OK, here’s a question: given most foodstuffs have an expiry date, isn’t there a measure of risk involved? What we mean is, couldn’t one of his packages of blue cheese (?), chicken broth (??) or chopped onions (???) self-combust at some point? Harne, ever the problem-solver, has that covered. He used to store his packs intact but because he wanted them to last more than a few years without the contents leaching out, he decided his best course of action would be to open each one up and clean it out, he says.
Using a razor blade, he carefully makes an incision along the short side of the packet before rinsing out the contents. While he will sample certain condiments, most end up down the drain because "a lot of what you see, you wouldn’t want anywhere near your mouth." When the package is thoroughly dry, he places it in a plastic baseball card holder and files it away: taco sauce with the taco sauces, French dressing with the French dressings, you get the idea.
"In the Czech Republic they seem to put tartar sauce on everything," he continues, noting he’s been able to greatly expand his lot by trading with people (Wait, what? There are more condiment collectors out there?) from other countries. "I also have quite a few honey packets from Italy that had little bits of crushed up honeycomb in the packet itself. When I was washing them out they looked like good ones, so I gave them a try. I was correct. They were absolutely delicious."
While Harne agrees his collection likely wouldn’t fetch much if he ever decided to part with it, a few years ago he was prepared to take out a second mortgage on his home after discovering an online auction comprised of condiment packets dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s.
"A friend emailed me the link and when I clicked on it I almost broke out into a full sweat," he says. "The family of a lady who’d passed away was selling a binder full of condiments she’d hung onto through the years, things that would be absolutely unfindable in this day and age. I thought how much was this going to cost me? Five hundred dollars? A thousand?"
Prepared to pay whatever it took, he ended up getting everything for US$18, he announces with a hint of pride.
Oh, by the way, you know those dipping tubs of honey mustard or sweet and sour sauce you get when you order chicken nuggets? Harne, who rewards people who mail uncommon condiment packets to him with a self-designed pin, has no use for ‘em, apparently.
"Those three-dimensional tubs have always been a bit of a sticking point with me as I’ve never been able to find a good way to fit them into my collection," he says, mentioning he also doesn’t keep any packaged spices - no salt, no pepper - or sweeteners. "Maybe somewhere down the line I’ll change my mind but for now flat packs are all I’m interested in."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.