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Michigan entrepreneur claiming idea for Heinz Dip & Squeeze ketchup packet

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These portable packets from Heinz are at the center of a new lawsuit. (AP Photo)

A Michigan food entrepreneur claims the "Little Dipper" condiment package he patented in 1997 led H.J. Heinz Co. to develop its Dip & Squeeze ketchup packets, which it rolled out in February 2010, lawyers in opening statements told a federal court jury in Pittsburgh on Monday.

The trial, expected to last through Thursday, will determine whether or not Pittsburgh-based Heinz used David Wawrzynski's "concrete, new and novel" ideas when it developed the dual-purpose ketchup packets. If the jury rules in the Detroit businessman's favor and determines Heinz agreed to pay for the ideas, a separate trial will begin June 10 on how much Heinz owes Wawrzynski.

"Heinz says it didn't use any of Mr. Wawrzynski's ideas - they thought it up all on their own," his attorney, Eugene Boyle Jr. told the jury. "We're here to tell you that's not true."

Boyle told The Associated Press he can't say how much Wawrzynski is seeking because an expert hired to calculate the sum hasn't issued a final report.

But Heinz attorney David Wolfsohn said Heinz owes nothing because the Dip & Squeeze owes nothing to the cone-shaped container that Wawrzynski invented. Drawings of two versions of that product were shown to the jury, including one with a keyhole-shaped opening that enables a person to dip a french fry into ketchup, while wiping off excess amounts as it's pulled out of the opening.

Wawrzynski isn't claiming Heinz copied the exact design. Rather, he contends Heinz didn't have the idea for a ketchup container that could be dipped into and squeezed until they heard his pitch. Wolfsohn denied that claim.

The Dip & Squeeze grew out of an earlier idea called the "Dunk `n Squirt" that Heinz began working on in 2002 but shelved in 2006 because it couldn't find a vendor to make the throwaway ketchup packets cheaply enough, the company says. The packets must be cheap to purchase because fast-food restaurants and others give the packets away for free, Wolfsohn said.

Prototypes developed in 2006 were keystone-shaped - like Heinz's iconic ketchup label - and had a peelable top if a customer wanted to dip a fry and a tear-off end so the ketchup could be squeezed, Wolfsohn said. Except for the keystone shape, the Dip & Squeeze packets are nearly identical.

But Boyle insists the idea came from the 44-year-old Wawrzynski, who began working in the food industry at 13. After working at pizzerias over five years from the time he was 16, Wawrzynski launched Wok to You, a firm that delivers Asian food from 30 different Detroit-area restaurants.

"Dave's been tinkering with condiment packaging since high school," Boyle said.

When an earlier letter to Heinz didn't attract attention, he wrote to then-CEO William Johnson in March 2008 and met with Heinz officials a month later, Boyle said.

Heinz doesn't deny the meeting took place, but says the discussions revolved around his hand-held, cone-shaped container designed to keep french fries from dripping ketchup.

"The ideas that were discussed at that meeting had nothing to do with the Dip & Squeeze," Wolfsohn said.