Heinz wants to convince Chicago that ketchup and hot dogs can co-exist. Will it succeed?

CHICAGO − It looks a bit like the huge monolith from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." But in fact, it's a giant ketchup dispenser and it's come here to change the way humanity thinks about the condiment.

Ketchup giant Heinz put it here, right in the heart of Chicago on the Navy Pier, to try and sway Chicagoans to the notion that ketchup on a hot dog is not such a bad thing. Throughout the ages, Chicago has firmly eschewed ketchup on hot dogs, and Heinz is trying to paint the city red with ketchup appreciation.

For some in the Windy City, the message isn't sinking in.

Chicago South Side native Mari Zavala raised her eyes at the shining red giant that spits out packets of ketchup with a slam of your hand. "When you’re adding ketchup, you’re a weirdo,” says the 22-year-old, who worked until recently at Ricobene's, an iconic nearby sandwich spot.

But it's that very attitude that Heinz is attacking in Chicago, preaching ketchup almost as though it's a Constitutional right. A video splashed prominently at the top of the Heinz company web site shows the 7+-foot high ketchup dispenser with messages such as "Some restaurants refuse to serve Heinz" and "We have a solution" flashing across the screen.

"Now serving Heinz wherever Heinz isn't served," reads another message, while a supposed Chicagoan devours a hot dog smothered in ketchup.

Mari Zavala, right, shows her cousin, Yunuen Medina, around Navy Pier in Chicago, where the pair came across an unusual sight, a dispenser meant to tempt locals into adding ketchup to hot dogs.
Mari Zavala, right, shows her cousin, Yunuen Medina, around Navy Pier in Chicago, where the pair came across an unusual sight, a dispenser meant to tempt locals into adding ketchup to hot dogs.

The company is piloting the monolith dispenser as an answer to Chicago restaurants refusing to serve their product. The anti-ketchup attitude is engrained deep in this city. From Barack Obama to the man on the street, Chicagoans are known for their aversion to ketchup on hot dogs.

Heinz, which sells 650 million bottles of the red sauce every year, says it wants to help ketchup lovers.

“People get really frustrated when they’re stuck in a restaurant without it,” says Megan Lang, a Heinz spokesperson who called Chicago a “ketchup catastrophe." She tells USA TODAY that the idea for the hand-smack dispenser came after hearing stories of “frustration and grief” from Heinz devotees unable to find their ketchup fix in Chicago.

“This spurred us to think about how we could turn the iconic bottle-smacking behavior into a way to let them get out their frustration,” Lang said. “We felt like we needed to challenge Chicago on this condemnation."

Or perhaps condiment-nation.

Heinz put up the ketchup stand two weeks ago not far from hot dog stands and restaurants and plenty of passers-by, both tourists and locals alike. It's a short trial run − in fact, the stand's last day is Saturday - and Heinz says it may bring it back for future efforts in Chicago and elsewhere.

In most U.S. cities, ketchup is splashed all over. But on hot dogs in Chicago, ketchup raises a red flag. Local reporters even question mayoral candidates about their stance on the issue and Mayor Brandon Johnson, in a perfectly straight face, calls the practice of putting ketchup on hot dogs "a sin."

A line drawn . . . in the ketchup?

Chicagoans generally pride themselves on dressing their dogs with other condiments, including mustard, neon-green relish, onion, tomato, a pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt, all on a poppy seed bun. But usually, not a drop of the red stuff.

The Chicago way of dressing a dog is one of many from around the county. But Chicagoans feel so strongly about it, sales of ketchup have fallen off and are 20% below the national average, according to data provided by Heinz.

The Heinz stand at Navy Pier is in one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations by Lake Michigan. It consists of a red display board with an upturned bottle in the middle. Above it, instructions read, “Smack for Heinz.” Such a smack causes packets of ketchup to drop down like candy from a vending machine.

On a recent day, more people than not reacted with shock and horror at the stand.

“It’s just wrong, it’s wrong for a dog,” said Chicago native Cathy LaShea.

There's even some national anti-ketchup precedent. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, established by the American Meat Institute and which serves as an information resource to consumers on questions related to quality, safety, and nutrition, of hot dogs and sausages, addresses the subject in its online "Etiquette Guide."

"Don't use ketchup on your hot dog after the age of 18," the hot dog council advises. "Mustard, relish, onions, cheese and chili are acceptable."

Tourists don't mind the ketchup monolith

Not everyone in Chicago is adverse to the ketchup-hot dog union.

Jaelyn Baisch and Miriah Forness, a pair of North Dakotans visiting Chicago, lit up like running into an old friend after finding the radiant ketchup stand. Ketchup runs in Fargo like the salmon in Alaska, the pair says.

“You can use as much ketchup as humanly possible,” said Forness, 26.

The two medical students were surprised that in Chicago, adding ketchup could earn someone a scarlet letter.

“Whoops, well came to the wrong place as ketchup lovers,” said Baisch, 23.

To be frank, Chicago is not alone

Other parts of the U.S. avoid dressing their dogs with ketchup, according to the hot dog council.

New York City goes for steamed onions and yellow mustard; in the Southwest, the Sonoran dog comes wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans, grilled onion, green peppers, fresh tomato and more; and Michigan’s Coney Island dog comes topped with chili, according to a council list of regional styles.

But nowhere is the animosity towards ketchup so pronounced as in Chicago. It goes all the way to the top.

“Is ketchup on a hot dog ever acceptable,” Anthony Bourdain asked President Barack Obama on his show Parts Unknown in 2016.

“No,” said the president, who used to call Chicago home. “Let me put it this way, it’s not acceptable past the age of 8.”

Chicago below the average for ketchup consumption

The Heinz stand has been moved around to a few different spots in the city. It first appeared outside a North Side hot dog stand before being moved to Navy Pier.

Chicago’s disdain for ketchup has made it “about 20% below the national average when it comes to ketchup consumption,” Heinz said, although the city’s taste for mustard - also made by Heinz - partly makes up that shortfall.

Knoxville, Tennessee; Syracuse, New York; and Orlando, Florida, consume a disproportionate amount of ketchup, Heinz reports.

Chicago residents and tourists have smacked about 100 bottles of ketchup from the stand in the last few weeks, Heinz said.

Hoodwinked by ketchup

Bobby Trice, a line cook at The Weiner's Circle, the iconic North Side stand outside where Heinz set up last week, opines that Chicago’s stance on ketchup goes back decades.

“They had a lot of rotten meat," he explained, waving his hands back to a bygone era, "and in order for you to eat it, they put ketchup on it.”

Bobby Trice, a longtime line cook at The Weiner's Circle on the North Side of Chicago, dishes on the city's aversion to using ketchup on hot dogs.
Bobby Trice, a longtime line cook at The Weiner's Circle on the North Side of Chicago, dishes on the city's aversion to using ketchup on hot dogs.

The sweetness of it, he said, overtook any unsavory flavors. “Anything you put ketchup on, you can’t taste nothing else.”

Heinz first began bottling “catsup” in 1876, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, just a few years before a German immigrant popularized hot dogs at Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Trice, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, said he grew up with ketchup but came became a convert after moving to Chicago.

“I thought it was all a show, but it wasn’t,” he said. “This is serious.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Ketchup catastrophe' in Chicago prompts Heinz to try frank tactics