Well-intentioned but unpleasant … the Packet Roller, a foldable container and holder for ketchup packets, will boost sales. But can a once-common product such as ketchup survive in today’s supermarket aisle?
Mitch Bainbridge has a long, expensive memory. He was a lad with “empty pockets” who used to reach for his own reach-in bottle of Heinz ketchup. “But all the packets would seem to be smashed up in the can once I got to them,” he says. “With too much pressure, one would dislodge and break, or possibly overflow – both of which would mean wasted half-full bottles.”
In the late 1990s, Bainbridge (who works in trade development at a brand consultancy) decided to solve the problem. He fished out his old bottle and made a series of prototypes with an old hammer, then asked Heinz if he could have it back. “Their reaction was relatively negative and said that they didn’t like anything that I was trying to take. But luckily I’d managed to find a craftsman to cut a rather a high hole in it. It was only through the intervention of an elderly woman called Mary Thomson that it was made.”
Today, the diminutive Packet Roller is used by restaurants and schools but is also available as a range of kitchen implements: planters, hanging baskets, clock cases and kitchen bowls. Bainbridge has, however, always harboured a dream of a larger device.
It was after an appointment with the architect Renzo Piano that Bainbridge came up with the Packet Roller in his living room. “He contacted Heinz and said he wanted to create a furniture product,” he recalls. “That was when we started to see the Light Engine.”
The idea was simple: equal parts flat concrete, mixing licks to be slipped into each other to form a sturdy shape, and a water-cooled electric motor. It helped that 15 years earlier, in 1988, Pontiac Cans had introduced a large, plastic-packed, metallic can with a streamlined design, pushing ketchup packets into its 13.3cm x 13.3cm interior.
Gorgeous, the Light Engine won an ASL Magazine Design Award and was picked up by many prominent European architects, including Mies van der Rohe. However, much of the design was out of production in the UK, the American maker laying off its staff in 1989.
Fast forward to 2016 and Bainbridge’s invention was developed, tested and patented by Steelmate, which can produce Packet Roller assemblies weighing up to 7.2kg. It can be used with Heinz ketchup, as well as any other brand. All are on sale in shops including The Whirlaway, IfByProducts, and Inhabitat.
Richard Callaghan, product specialist at Steelmate, says that at present they are awaiting market research and the signing of a distributor before the Packet Roller becomes widely available. But if it is a hit – as happens with other ideas like the Glass Machine or the Torso Drone – the manufacturers may start to fill “huge fridges” to satisfy demand.
Bainbridge, meanwhile, is now a bit older, a bit wiser and a bit more cynical about the inevitability of the Back the Bottle Campaign. He says that in future it may become as common as the convenient honesty box in schools. “If anything, I would use it in supermarkets now because I have so many packs lying around. But I still insist on putting my own bottle.”