People used to reach for the ketchup bottle with a little dread. Would they have to poke a knife up the bottle's neck to get the ketchup...

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WASHINGTON — People used to reach for the ketchup bottle with a little dread.

Would they have to poke a knife up the bottle’s neck to get the ketchup going? If the bottle was an old-fashioned squeezable, would it emit that conversation-stopping sound that made kids giggle? Would the first thing out of the bottle be a sneeze of watery juice?

Those days are virtually over, and the liberation is especially worth celebrating around Independence Day, the year’s peak holiday for ketchup.

The condiment’s founding fathers were East Asian spice exporters who sold British and Dutch traders something like Worcestershire sauce that they called “ketsiap.” That was in the 1600s. A century later, Nova Scotia farmers added surplus tomatoes and sugar to the mix. The rest is history.

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According to an industry survey, 96 percent of U.S. households keep ketchup on hand, more than have salt and pepper. But that doesn’t necessarily mean thriving sales. By the late ’90s, in fact, with burgers and fries on the outs in a fat-phobic society, ketchup sales were flat.

The only way to sell more, decided H.J. Heinz Co., the world’s dominant ketchup producer, was to get people to eat more, which was easier said than done. It entailed solving all of ketchup’s consumer problems, especially the challenge of getting more ketchup out of the bottle faster. Also key would be overcoming people’s reluctance to take all the ketchup they really want.

The result was the massive and much-loved upside-down ketchup bottle, which empties as fast and cleanly as a gas can at a NASCAR pit stop. “Ready when you are,” was Heinz’s introductory slogan for it.

(That was much grabbier than Henry John Heinz’s 19th-century pitch that replacing homemade ketchup with his meant “blessed relief for Mother and the other women of the household.”)

The new bottles ended the tyranny of know-it-alls who made you hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle and tap it in some special place. And it saved shirts and ties while liberating decent people from what humorist Dave Barry might call farting ketchup.

Building a better bottle

Ketchup’s modern revolution began in 1991 in a small precision-molding shop wedged between a scrapyard and a saloon in Midland, Mich. The key prop in the dingy scene was a molding press that was meant to turn injections of liquid silicone into flexible, one-piece precision valves.

It wasn’t working quite right, however. Paul Brown, the shop’s stocky, bullheaded owner, spent his days sitting before the press on a four-legged stool, chain-smoking and rethinking the valves’ design.

“I would pretend I was silicone and, if I was injected into a mold, what I would do,” recalled Brown, a computer-phobic, intuition-guided shop technician.

His vision was a dispensing valve for a new kind of shampoo bottle that could be stored upside down on, say, a tub’s edge. The valve had to open easily when squeezed and shut securely when the squeezing stopped. No drips, no leaks — ever.

To that end, Brown, then 48, and his mold-maker, Tim Socier, came up with a valve that’s a little silicone dome with right-angled slits cut in its top. When the bottle’s sides were pressed, the dome’s slits opened like flower petals and released the contents. When the pressing stopped, the air sucked back into the dome caused it to retract, and the slits to close.

Brown sat back in his chair and said: “Holy cow, I just hit the jackpot.”

He was right. The shampoo customer bought in. Eventually, so did baby food-maker Gerber, which uses a version of the valve in its sippy cups. So did NASA when it needed a leak-proof drinking-water system for spacewalking astronauts. So did other shampoo and cosmetics makers. Years later, so did Heinz and Hunt’s, Heinz’s main competitor, for their top-down ketchup bottles.

Brown sold his company in 1995 for about $13 million.

Before they got into upside-down ketchup, marketers at Heinz headquarters in Pittsburgh turned another ketchup tradition upside down. They came out with green ketchup in 2000, then purple ketchup, both in slim, swirly, “EZ Squirt” bottles aimed at kids.

Two years later — prompted, some say, by a security breach that disclosed that Hunt’s was working on the same idea — Heinz introduced its pour-from-the-bottom bottle.

“A lot of consumers already were storing their ketchup upside down,” said Patrick Macedo, Heinz’s brand manager for the condiment. “We just helped them do what they were already doing better.”

The top-down bottle doesn’t leak, thanks to a variant of Brown’s patented valve. It won’t spew ketchup spit — which Heinz calls “serum” — thanks to a little grooved trap that runs around the cap.

Even flatulence is down. As Wayne Cleary, Heinz’s manager of packaging systems, put it: “The product is at the opening, if stored correctly. You’re not waiting for the product to come down to the opening with the air and all.”

And how top-down ketchup pours. In old-fashioned squeeze bottles, Cleary explained, the stream of ketchup “drooped as it poured.”

“With the inverted package, it comes out in a straight line,” he said. “It’s not gonna droop.” This — along with a bigger valve opening — fulfilled Heinz’s basic goal: It got more ketchup out of the bottle faster.

Increasing consumption

However, getting people to eat still more ketchup remained a challenge.

The key, Macedo said, was to recognize that ketchup was “a very social product,” typically consumed by people dining together. They see themselves as sharing the ketchup, he said, or at any rate they think they should restrain their appetites for it, especially if they think it might run out.

A bigger bottle would make people less likely to ration and more likely to indulge, Heinz marketers theorized. If true, ketchup would work like 2-liter Coke: The bigger the bottle, the greater the consumption.

By studying supermarket receipts, Macedo said, Heinz discovered the key to increasing its $3 billion global ketchup business: “When people moved from a 24-ounce bottle to a 36-ounce bottle, they used 44 percent more ketchup. When they moved from 24 ounces to 46, they used 78 percent more.”

Basically, shoppers went through big bottles at nearly the rate that they’d gone through smaller ones. To promote that tendency, Heinz paid to shift its big bottles — and its wildly popular top-down bottles — to eye-level positions in every U.S. supermarket.

Eye-level display usually increases sales at least 10 percent, said Gene German, a food-marketing professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Soon, Heinz’s new no-neck 46- and 60-ounce behemoths, sculpted to fit on refrigerator-door shelves, will be offered with top-down valves, too.

Lovable ketchup at last.

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