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An Interview with Mark Ramadan of Sir Kensington’s

Small Business Interviews

An Interview with Mark Ramadan of Sir Kensington’s

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

An Interview with Mark Ramadan of Sir Kensington’s

Mark RamadanCo-Founder

Mark Ramadan is the co-founder of Sir Kensington's, a condiment company shaking up the supermarket status quo.

Employees

26

Founded

2010

LOCATION

New York City

Industry

Condiments

Social

It’s said that there are few things in life as American as apple pie, but what about ketchup? One could argue that the classic condiment is the most American thing there is–drizzled over baseball game hot dogs, spread on hamburgers at barbeques, and dipped into by salty fries nationwide. Yes, ketchup–and its most immediately recognizable purveyor, Heinz–is ubiquitous when it comes to the culinary diet of Americans. So perhaps it makes sense that two college students from Brown University had to create a fictitious Brit by the name of Sir Kensington to turn everything on its head.

When Scott Norton and Mark Ramadan started Sir Kensington’s in their dorm room, the grocery store aisles were still lined with inferior products made with high fructose corn syrup and that creepily nebulous term known as “natural flavors.” No one had bothered to step up to the plate and challenge the status quo. We’ve been born with Heinz ketchup and we’ll die with Heinz ketchup. Some things in life are that seemingly constant. But Norton and Ramadan wanted to change that. They vowed to do better. The two launched in 2010 with a ketchup sporting less sugar, less salt, and absolutely no high fructose corn syrup. The market was apparently ready for a change. Gourmet grocers Williams-Sonoma and Dean & DeLuca immediately placed orders, followed soon after by Whole Foods. Sir Kensington’s sold 10,000 jars in the first year. And, with steadier footing and regular accounts, got into the mustard and mayonnaise game.

Today, the condiment company is growing steadily. In summer of 2015, Sir Kensington’s raised $8.5 million from individual investors and Verlinvest, a family-owned PE group with an interest in healthier, on-trend snacks like Vita Coco, Popchips, and Sambazon’s açaí brew. Here, we talk to Mark Ramadan about the power of inertia, smart hiring skills, and the perfect snack on a cold winter’s day.

Funding Circle

Online, you offer a very fanciful backstory: the Sir Kensington’s Spice Chronicles. How did you come up with that brand tale?

Mark Ramadan

I’ll tell you the story with both the mythical happenings and the not so mythical. My partner Scott and I met each other in college. We were both econ majors. We both loved food and we were both interested in entrepreneurship. We were just swapping ideas one day and saying how weird it was that in the grocery store we were overwhelmed by choice in every category. There’s a million salsas, a million cereals, a million different yogurts. But the one category where there was no choice was condiments. It’s like all the same brands from the last 50 years. And so we decided to see if we could make something that was a little bit different. Not using concentrates, not using artificial flavors or preservatives. That’s sort of how it started.

The character of Sir Kensington was born out of the idea that the most important part of food for us was entertainment. Food’s really about bringing people together. It’s about giving people a way to celebrate and, hopefully, giving people a reason to smile. And so we were thinking about creating something that was going up against a brand like Heinz. We couldn’t just create “Scott’s Ketchup” or “Mark’s Ketchup.” It had to be something more. We wanted to create a story around it–something that really helped people connect with the brand in a way that went beyond just what was in the bottle.

Sir Kensington was the character we created that reflected the never-ending search for something better. By making it British, it was sort of tongue-in-cheek, in that Americans look to the British for fancy things like high tea and scones.

Funding Circle

Why do you think that the big players like Heinz have dominated the condiment space for such a long time?

Mark Ramadan

I think inertia’s a big part of it: what has always been will always be. Heinz is a really powerful force and I think they’ve done a really good job of being present everywhere. Any time you go to a restaurant or a hotel or a fast food joint, the only ketchup you see is Heinz. And so you start to think that it’s the only legitimate ketchup. There are plenty of other ketchups in the grocery store, but it’s like you have Heinz and you have everyone else.

Every organic ketchup is an attempt to look and taste just like Heinz–but be organic. It’s the same for every mayonnaise. Every mayonnaise is an attempt to look and taste and smell just like Hellmann’s, but be organic or with less fat. And I think that’s doing a disservice to choice. Chobani wasn’t trying to look and taste and smell just like Yoplait, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. And Kettle Chips don’t look or taste or smell anything like Lays; it’s a completely different thing. That was sort of our insight: many condiments have stayed the same because everyone’s trying to be the same or reinforce this sameness. We wanted to be different.

Funding Circle

With no cooking background between the two of you per se, how did you begin prototyping the ketchup?

Mark Ramadan

We have no cooking background at all. You don’t even need to say per se; we’re basically juvenile. We just started googling ketchup recipes online, honestly. It’s not that complicated to make ketchup. It’s tomato, onion, vinegar, salt, and sugar and some combination of spices. We looked up a bunch of different ways to make it and we started just cooking them in our room. We came up with a couple of different formulas that we thought were good and we took them by the people over at tasting parties. We collected that feedback. Now it’s a big part of how we launch and test the products today–having these tasting parties with people who are part of our Sir Kensington’s inner circle, which has expanded from 20 college friends to 200 people that now include chefs and retail partners and the press and other people whose opinions we trust.

Funding Circle

So what was it like securing your first retail accounts? How long did that take?

Mark Ramadan

It didn’t take that long. I quit my job in June 2010 to pursue this full-time and Scott joined in November 2010 full-time. For a while it was just me with a suitcase literally going door-to-door in Manhattan trying to get people to buy it. We’re a little bit more sophisticated now. I believe the first store was Chelsea Market Basket which is a specialty gift store in Manhattan. They sell lots of nice jams and other things from around the world. I told them basically the same story I just told you and they said, “Okay, we’ll give it a shot.” I sold them the case and then they reordered because they sold through it. It was very hands-on and it remained that way for a long time. I went and introduced myself to everybody who sold it in New York. As we started to expand around the country, it got harder to have that personal connection but it’s made a big difference.

Funding Circle

And now that you’ve expanded, what do you look for when you’re hiring new salespeople?

Mark Ramadan

For what we look for, it’s really two things. One is a genuine passion for food. I think the cultural fabric that ties the company together is that everyone is obsessed with food. Whether it’s making food at home or talking about the newest brands they discovered at Whole Foods, we all have that shared interest. I think it makes the job a lot more fun–to really care about what you do and what you make. It’s impossible to sell in an effective and genuine way if you don’t truly care about or truly believe in what you’re selling. So that’s the first and foremost thing.

The second thing is persistence. It’s not easy to sell anything, and it’s definitely not easy to sell gourmet condiments, so we look for people who have a history of not taking “no” for an answer.

Those are the biggest two. That first one–a passion for food–that really speaks to a cultural fit within the company. We’ve had a couple of hiring mistakes where we’ve hired for resume fit rather than cultural fit and it’s always blown up in our face. So now we really prioritize fitting with the teams and fitting with the story of the brand and really being energized by what we’re doing over having the perfect resume. You can always teach skills but you can’t teach fit.

Funding Circle

Were there any other mistakes that you really learned from along the way?

Mark Ramadan

Oh, yeah. So many. Probably the biggest one is not staying focused early on. It took us four years to realize we should be really focused. When you’re a young company–probably in any industry but especially in food–if you have any degree of success you start getting inbound leads, too. You’ll get retailers from Texas and California, Maine and Oregon, contacting you saying, “We want to sell your product. We want to put it in our stores.” At the time, it seems like the most incredible compliment and that it would be stupid to say no. But what we didn’t know at the time is that products don’t sell themselves. Nothing really sells itself.

Before you launch somewhere, you really have to understand what it’s going to cost to support that product and what it’s going to cost to really make sure that it turns on the shelf and that the consumers in that area know who Sir Kensington’s is and why it’s better. If they don’t, the product is just going to sit on the shelf and then the store’s going to get upset and then they’re going to discontinue it and then you’re not really going to have a chance to get back in there when we are ready. What we’ve learned is to pick a couple of focus areas, whether geographic or product, and become the best at that. There’s some good advice I received probably a little bit too late: it’s better to be the number one ketchup or the number one mayonnaise in ten stores than the number ten mayonnaise in a hundred stores. That’s the mantra we’ve incorporated into our strategy that we didn’t have early on.

Funding Circle

What are the biggest changes that have happened in food over the last decade that you’ve noticed?

Mark Ramadan

I think people care more about where their food comes from and what’s in it. It’s hard to go a day without reading another article on New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Financial Times about these big food companies from our childhood. Like Campbell’s is failing. They’re desperately trying to patch the holes in their product line. These legacy brands are not appealing to people like they used to, because people want honesty and transparency in the ingredients.

Funding Circle

Do you have any lessons on marketing that you would share with aspiring entrepreneurs?

Mark Ramadan

It pays to be different. Really different products or really unique products can be hell of alot easier to market. With an idea that is really unique, the marketing is going to be a lot easier than if you see a trend and go that direction. For example, let’s say that a trend right now is cold pressed juices. If you’re going to make your own cold pressed juice, marketing that is going to be a whole lot harder because you’re not doing something really different. You’re just following a trend. People see right through that.

Sir Kensington's ketchup

Funding Circle

How did you deal with financing when you first started out?

Mark Ramadan

We raised the money from friends and family. Until this past summer that’s pretty much how it’s been–working with individuals who really believed in the idea.

Funding Circle

How do you think your time consulting informed your approach to business with Sir Kensington’s?

Mark Ramadan

I think that the biggest thing I took away from my time at McKinsey was how to break down big problems into tiny chunks. With my job, all of a sudden I had all these products to sell, I had a million things to do: I had to raise money, I had to get it into stores, I had to think about marketing, I had to think about social media. There’s a lot of stuff there and unless you have a really good system and way to break down problems into manageable sections, it can get really overwhelming. You end up focusing on the little things that are easier to accomplish rather than the bigger things that are, you know, for longer term perspective. You blink and all of a sudden it’s been three years and you haven’t done anything big. Private consulting helped me think about how to break down those bigger strategic initiatives into mini chunks along the way so make sure you’re always making progress against your big goals.

Funding Circle

What’s the best dish you’ve ever had using a Sir Kensington’s product?

Mark Ramadan

Oooh, best dish I’ve ever had? Well that’s hard. You know, honestly, it’s really the simple stuff. I make really good, healthy grilled cheese sandwich with a little bit of spiced ketchup on there. It’s hard to beat that, especially on a chilly day. I think that’s my favorite.

Quick Fire:

Book every entrepreneur should read: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

3 (living) people you’d invite to your ultimate dinner party: George Soros, Elon Musk, Michael Pollan

Your favorite brand: Other than Sir Kensington’s — 21st Amendment Brewery

Favorite cocktail: Boulevardier

One company to keep an eye on: Exo (cricket protein bars)

Samantha Novick

Samantha Novick is a senior editor at Funding Circle, specializing in small business financing. She has a bachelor's degree from the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. Prior to Funding Circle, Samantha was a community manager at Marcus by Goldman Sachs. Her work has been featured in a number of top small business resource sites and publications.

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