Entrepreneurs

Grocery store frustration sparks condiment empire

Most college seniors spend their final semesters on campus partying and celebrating their remaining days of freedom before the real world hits them. But Mark Ramadan and Scott Norton were a bit different.

The Brown University grads used their last semester of college in 2008 to experiment with ketchup. That's right, ketchup. The two friends, who both studied economics, bonded over their love of food and were both perplexed by and inspired by the lack of choice in the condiment aisle.

"When you walk down any aisle in the grocery store, you're totally overwhelmed by choice in everything," Ramadan said. "There are a million different cereals and yogurts and salsas. But there's one area of the store—ketchup—that hasn't changed in 50 years."

So they did something about it and launched natural condiment brand Sir Kensington's, which has raised $8.5 million in funding to date from individual investors and Verlinvest, a private equity group headquartered in Brussels. Today the company's condiments are sold in 5,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada and online.

Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan are the co-founders of Sir Kensington's, an artisanal condiment company. Their products are sold at more than 5,000 retailers in North America including Whole Foods, Safeway and Fresh Market.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan are the co-founders of Sir Kensington's, an artisanal condiment company. Their products are sold at more than 5,000 retailers in North America including Whole Foods, Safeway and Fresh Market.

About half of its business comes from the roughly 500 hotels and restaurants that have its product on their menus. Since 2012 sales have grown roughly 1,500 percent, and the company has expanded to 14 distinct condiments from Special Sauce to Fabanaise, a vegan mayonnaise made with aquafaba, an egg alternative derived from chickpeas.

So how did the pair turn frustration at the grocery story into a condiment empire? During their final semester, the duo started experimenting with different homemade ketchup recipes in their off-campus apartment, even inviting friends over to taste test with score cards.

"We had people dress up in suits and ties and dresses so we kind of made it a special occasion," Ramadan said.

The tests yielded two hits and quite a few flops. After graduation, Norton headed to Tokyo to work in banking, while Ramadan took a job in New York in consulting. But they remained dedicated to producing a healthy alternative to traditional ketchup, featuring less sugar and non-GMO ingredients, with a richer and more flavorful taste.

During nights and weekends, they Skyped and worked on their business plan and in 2010, the pair decided they would give starting a company a go after ordering a pallet of ketchup and having it arrive at Ramadan's apartment.

"Someone needed to sell it," he said.

In 2010 they launched Sir Kensington's and successfully pitched it to specialty stores, such as Murray's Cheese and Chelsea Market Baskets in the Big Apple. Soon after they debuted at the Fancy Food Show in Manhattan and inked a deal with Whole Foods stores, selling a 14-ounce bottle of ketchup for $5.

The move from small stores to regional Whole Foods locations was exciting, but presented fresh challenges

"When you're trying to change the way people eat, even for the better, there's a lot of momentum you're going up against," Norton said. "You've got to spark excitement and energy. We are creating a project that's universally loved, and that's a big challenge for us."

And by the way, who is Sir Kensington? The mascot pictured on their condiments is a fictional character who serves as inspiration to the co-founders.

"He's a Victorian naturalist and a spice trader," Norton said. "It's about bringing that humor and creativity back into food. It's something we are really passionate about."

"Sir Kensington's as a brand is about not taking yourself too seriously," Ramadan added. "And when you only make condiments, you can't take yourself too seriously."