John Walker's Electronic House

The Great British Ketchup Crisis

by on Feb.14, 2010, under Rum Doings, The Rest

A few decades back something went horribly wrong in the UK. At a certain point, as a nation, we reversed the order of priority between customer and service provider. And nothing reveals this contempt demonstrated to consumers better than the provision of ketchup.

Now we all know that the way things should work is the volume of ketchup available being inversely proportional to the poshness of the establishment. Cheap and cheerful cafes should have a big bottle of the stuff available on the table. Then as you get more posh the amount drops down. A reasonably nice pub chain will, for instance, give you a ramekin dish filled with red sauce. Go from chain to restaurant and now the ramekin is only leant to you momentarily, for you to teaspoon as much onto your plate as you feel you can get away with. (I’ve declared no shame at this point, and will gladly empty it out – they’ve got more.) Next rung is they maintain complete control of the ketchup distribution, titrating a single millilitre of it onto your plate for you. Then above that requesting ketchup results in your being asked to leave.

That’s all how we expect it to be in the lunatic version of society we should concede to accept. This is not something the UK is capable of adhering to. Because in the UK ketchup is a rare commodity, brought in by vast merchant ships from distant lands, traded for gold and precious jewels. It is an exotic elixir so rare and unusual that it must be reserved as an offering to the gods, or for visiting kings of neighbouring empires. We must preserve our precious ketchup resources, and we must ensure that no customer is able to dip their chips in more than half a teaspoon’s worth, distributed in tiny plastic sachets that can only be opened using teeth.

Which is strange, because when you go into supermarkets they seem to sell enormous containers of it for insignificant amounts of money. This is indeed quite a mystery.

It is with all this in mind that I say: bring your own ketchup to the Hillside Cottage in Cheddar Gorge.

The picturesque street weaving through the tourist town is packed with cute, interesting shops to explore, taste peculiar cheeses, buy icecreams, and stare in giggly amazement at massively overpriced tat. And of course there’s a thousand opportunities to get some food, perhaps a cream tea (a phrase now ruined for me by Rum Doings), and maybe a hot drink. The Hillside Cottage looks, from outside, by far the loveliest.

Inside it’s a regular, pokey little cafe-cum-restaurant, run by a nice lady, offering meals at a decent price. £5 to £6 for a burger and chips is barely more than getting the same in MacDonald’s, and no one should do that. Laura and I, spending Valentine’s Day following the instructions of Mr Stuart Campbell by getting cheddar from Cheddar, thought it looked a good place to get some lunch.

Our food was pretty average. It tasted supermarket/cash-and-carry bought, hence the reasonable prices I suppose, but the chips were nice enough. However, things took a turn for the plain damned weird when our tray of condiments were brought over.

To any Americans reading I can only assume this will sound like the garbled description of an alien world. Because rather than having the surely appropriate bottle of ketchup on the table for an establishment selling burgers and chips, we were given two tiny sachets to share between the two of us. (Amazingly the same went for salt – little doll house packages, rather than a shaker. And vinegar was only available on request.)

When the friendly lady came to serve us the burgers I asked, “Could we get lots and lots more ketchup?” I’ve realised that asking, “Could we get some more?” in such places results in one more sachet. I’ve taken to saying things like, “Could we get an improbable amount more ketchup? About three times as much as you’re currently thinking I’m asking for?” And it works. Normally they’ll bring over a comedy amount, which is ideal, because then you can open the three or four necessary to get an adult’s serving of the stuff, and there’s plenty left over for them to take back.

Not at the Hillside Cottage at Cheddar Gorge.

“Could we get lots more ketchup?” I asked.

The lady’s face went serious.

“Those two are free,” she explained. I stared, bemused at what could possibly come next. “For any more there’s a charge.”

My jaw dropped. Laura flashed me a look that said, “Don’t.” I didn’t.

Instead I just stared forward, the awfulness of the UK dribbling over me like a thick sludge.

The contempt with which establishments treat customers is beyond belief. I’m sure she’s a lovely lady, and I’m sure the place is respectable in many ways. But to consider your customers beneath warranting one quarter of a serving of ketchup is beyond belief. It’s gross. It’s simply contemptuous. And it’s endemic throughout the country.

The solution, and this is something I’ve been intending to do for a while, is to carry a small bottle of ketchup with me in my coat pocket. It happens so often, from chip shops (that will only offer you ketchup in the form of buying a glass bottle of the stuff at some exorbitant fee) to half of all cafes and restaurants, that it’s the only reasonable solution. And then when other customers are in the same position of being treated by the establishment as utter scum not worthy of enjoying a plate of chips, I’ll offer them some of mine. And society will become better in that instance.

Because until this is what we do, this is how our plates will look:


28 Comments for this entry

  • Mark

    Maybe someone should organise a ketchup rally in which a suitably stingy establishment could be suddenly overrun with genuine paying customers who like lots and lots of ketchup, each with their own concealed bottle of high quality tomato condiment.

    A vague recommendation/challenge: there is a possibly-Dutch brand of ketchup available in Tesco so lovely and tangy and actually fresh tasting that it goes off after about four days, so is worth seeking out by those who regularly enjoy lots and lots of ketchup. (Unfortunately I can’t remember the name though I’m sure it was Dutch, hence the challenge)

  • JamesG

    I’ve heard disturbing complaints that the US is going the same way. Although as I’m not a ketchup fan myself*, this is not so personally troubling, except with respect to what it represents.

    [Phrase banned. Please see Rule #17] the little sachets of vinegar season my fingers more than the food?

    * I like the gourmet stuff, but that isn’t so much ketchup as tomato chutney.

  • Jazmeister

    Our local chip shop lets you use the ketchup if you sit in to eat, but you have to ask for it first, and they take it away when another customer asks for it. That means they’ve only got one. We have two right now in the cupboard downstairs, it’s madness.

  • Dante

    Chip shop chips should never be eaten with Ketchup, it’s all about the addition of salt and vinegar (administered by a professional, none of this northern style do it yourself lark) and the purchase of the holy panacea that is curry sauce.

  • Blissett

    I was rather enjoying that rant until it got to “the awfulness of the UK dribbling over me like a thick sludge” at which point I got a little bit cross.

  • CloakRiader

    Soon they will be charging you for chairs.
    I mean, the first 5 minutes of sitting are free, but after that it’s by the minute.

  • RodeoClown

    That whole screed was purely to justify publishing a picture of your girlfriend on the internet without having to write a post saying “Hi internet, this is my girlfriend!”


  • Blackberries


    I’m afraid I have to agree with John. I’ve long since grown accustomed to having to feel as though being permitted to grace a restaurant, shop or similar establishment with my coin is some kind of privilege not to be taking lightly; as though I need to be careful not to impinge too heavily upon the staff.

    Just ludicrous.

    (I fear I now sound like an angry middle aged man wanting to bellow in the face of timid gap year students for being slow in bringing me shoes to try on or some such. That’s not what I’m talking about).

  • km

    What RodeoClown said.

    Also your desire for ketchup is more proof that you are a closet American.

  • John Walker

    Dante – I’m going to have to write a new Rule that absolutely bans people from telling others with what they’re allowed and not allowed to have ketchup. You watch your step, mister.

    Blissett – I’m slightly confused how you got past the first paragraph if this was a problem. The UK culture for treating customers is gross, and coats us all in said sludge. It’s endemic throughout the nation, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

    RodeoClown (and Kim) – Genuinely it was not. Poor Laura’s been spared inclusion so far, rather than my waiting for an opportunity. However, this article on Eurogamer today totally was.

  • Richard

    Tsk. I’m running out of people I know not in relationships now. Also, it means you missed a great opportunity for a facehugger gag in that AvP thing.

    Or… maybe not. Now I think about it, that would probably have been a Very Bad Idea.

  • Jazmeister

    When customers or service providers are dicks, everyone is upset. There needs to be mutual respect there. Okay, they need my business, but I need their service. I don’t agree with the way it can go in the states, from a sales point of view. I had a manager who was very much against repelling idiots from my store on the simple grounds that ‘those idiots pay your salary!’ Why does it have to be these awful lopsided relationship? Can’t we all be friends? I’m willing to be friends with service folks!

  • Jazmeister

    “The picturesque street weaving through the tourist town is packed with cute, interesting shops to explore, peculiar cheeses to taste, icecreams to buy, and massively overpriced tat to stare in giggly amazement at.”

    I’m waiting for my reverence and awe.

  • Xercies

    I’m angry at this in some McDonalds and other such places which charge you 5p for a very small sache which basically gives you about a dollop. If you got enough for a whole bottle it probably would cost three times as much as actually getting it from the supermarket. This annoys me so much.

  • innokenti

    I find it endlessly bizzare the way that this is handled in Burger King. I don’t grace it with any regularity, but I popped in idly with some other BK-goers last week.

    Mayo and ketchup (and I assume other condiments) are hoarded jealously in some mysterious space under the counter which I can only assume is simply chock-full of the little sachets. You have to ask when you get your food if you want to get the hallowed sauce…

    Bizzarely, however, if you ask for loads, they will happily shower you with the things. So there is no real reason not to have a dispenser in the corner with all the vinegar, salt and pepper that you are providing (take as much as you want!) Why hoard? Who knows.

    I think you are right that it is a symptom of the strange imbalance in the customer-service relations in various areas. Though I wonder if it stems from the same attitudes…

  • Log

    Are you saying that things have gotten worse? I look at this as part of Britain’s grand tradition of uncomplaining consumers, poorly-rewarded service staff, and all-round surly cynicism. It amuses me more than it offends me (it’s more complicated than that, as I’m amused by my own offence) and I don’t remember it ever being *better*.

  • Funtleyboy

    By pure coincidence my lady and I were in Cheddar the day before you, in need of something to eat we fell in to the same trap. The Hillside Cottage looked lovely from the outside, however, a frostier reception I have not felt for some time. We too noticed the ketchup behind the counter, “1 free sachet per meal” it read, “further sachets available for 15p each”. It really didn’t get any better, I have never seen so many signs telling you what you mustn’t do, no smoking (obviously), no phones, no credit cards, no boots, Wait your turn as we serve previous orders before even taking others, and my personal favourite…..(On the door) Open…when we are ready, Closed….when we have had enough.
    My lady asked if it was possible to have some onion in her cheese omlette, this was met with disbelief and a sharp “No” from the lady behind the counter. Why do these people decide to run a cafe where you need to serve the general public. I’m embarrassed on behalf of my country, sorry to any tourists that mistakenly enter this place, its not all like that! With reference to your suggestion of carrying your own sauce bottle, great idea, however don’t try it in the Hillside…. a sign clearly states “Food bought here may be consumed here, food bought elsewhere must be eaten elsewhere”.
    The unfortunate irony of this tale is that the food was so bland, possibly the only thing that might have made it tolerable was a large helping of Ketchup!

  • James T

    One of the few things I remember about the Optimisation course I went to in my first year at uni is an aside by the lecturer in which he’d attempted to calculate the cheapest way to get all of one’s daily nutritional requirements from McDonalds — the answer turned out to be a Big Mac and 70 sachets of tomato ketchup!

    The assumption that the ketchup would be free clearly played a big part in this result, which I think serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who would be tempted to take too liberal an attitude to this pervasive condiment.

  • Blissett


    The reason I got past the first paragraph is that it was very specifically referring to customer service. The line I quoted however appears to be a generalised lament on the state of the nation. One I can kinda get behind, the other I really can’t.

    In general, I think it’s pretty easy to be negative about the quality of customer service in this country. But I think it’s important to recognise the big improvements that have been made in the last 20 years, particularly in the area of food preparation and service.

    Besides, I like to think that the remaining examples of old school British hospitality are rather charming and important. After all, Cheddar wouldn’t be Cheddar if it had completely embraced the 21st Century would it?

  • Robert Morgan

    The problem here is you’ve chosen to fight your battle on a platform of wanting loads and loads of ketchup. It’s not that you shouldn’t be entitled to have massive of ketchup. You should, just as you say.

    But you shouldn’t want it. For we know that the man who wants lots and lots of ketchup is a man who is a little bit rubbish.

  • Nick Mailer

    Oh dear, Robert – you’ve committed an offence in making moral statements about food aesthetics. Who do you think you are? Moses?

    John’ll be on top of you like a ton of bricks. And I do mean ton.

  • John Walker

    I put this down to the amount of ketchup I eat.

  • Juliet

    On the other hand, I’ve found that if ever you don’t want to pay extortionately for a bottle of water at a cinema, you can just ask politely for a cup of tap water.
    Mostly, if the people behind the tills aren’t the owners, it makes little odds to them whether or not you get some small things for free.

  • Lewis Denby

    CloakRiader: Clearly, that already happens, in establishments that charge you more to eat in than to take away, even though the entire process is self-service anyway and makes not one shred of difference, except that someone might have to spend four seconds running a cloth over your table if you choose to eat in.

  • Blissett

    Or that could just be because you have to pay VAT on eating in but not on take away……………

  • Robert Morgan

    Well yes Nick, you shouldn’t judge someone according to what food they enjoy. But lashings of ketchup is kind of the exception. Also no ketchup. You really have to have the amount of ketchup I prescribe in order to be OK.

  • MrsTrellis

    John, have you considered complaining?

    I only realised the value of ketchup last year. Nick and I both had flu and we were staying in a holiday cottage where my dad was in charge of catering. Nick and I got fish and chips from the legendary Magpie Cafe and brought them back to the cottage. Only… no ketchup. My dad said, vaguely, that he hadn’t brought any (but had brought a 30 year old box of dried thyme).

    The thought of eating even these exquisite fish and chips with no ketchup filled us with despair. We were in the middle of nowhere.

    I had to go and find a neighbouring house, and borrow some.

  • Skusey

    Also of note should be the ketchup supply in schools. My Mum’s a teacher and at her school you get no ketchup unless you pay for it, which is annoying, but worst of all this means that the children on free school dinners get no ketchup at all. How cruel is that? Also no salt is either added to food during cooking or placed on the tables because it’s unhealthy. Ridiculous.