#55 The Sriracha Story

Written by Food Non-Fiction July 26, 2016

This is the story of the extremely popular and iconic Huy Fong Foods hot sauce - Sriracha. The company, Huy Fong Foods, is an American success story. The founder, David Tran, left Vietnam in 1979 and ended up in the U.S., along with many of his fellow refugees. He had been part of the Chinese minority in Vietnam, and because of his Chinese heritage, he had been pressured to leave after the Vietnam War.

Huey Fong freighter
Huey Fong freighter [credit: Sriracha documentary]

In America, David Tran missed the taste of the hot sauces from Vietnam, and also needed to make money, so he started the company, Huy Fong Foods, in 1980 in California. The company was named after the freighter that he took to leave Vietnam - it was named "Huey Fong". David Tran had already started making chili sauce back in Vietnam, so he knew how to do it. He produced his hot sauce from a 5,000 sq foot building near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, making several different kinds of hot sauce, including sriracha.

In the beginning, he had to fill the bottles of hot sauce by manually, spoonful by spoonful. He painted his logo onto his blue Chevy van, and personally delivered his hot sauce. His logo is the iconic rooster logo, and it’s a rooster because that’s the zodiac sign for his birth year. The company grew steadily - year by year - with zero dollars spent on marketing. The red bottle, with the green top, which is meant to look like a red chili pepper with a green stem, is incredibly memorable without any advertising help. And it is a great product. It is made with fresh jalapeño peppers, not dried peppers. The peppers are picked when they’re at their best and delivered from the farm to the factory within the same day - in fact, within hours. Incredibly, Huy Fong Foods has only worked with one supplier since around 1988. That supplier is Underwood Ranches.

Huy Fong Foods broke ground for its largest facility yet in 2010. It’s a 650,000 sq. ft., state-of-the-art facility in the city of Irwindale. Unfortunately, this is also the site of the so-called “Sriracha apocalypse” - basically a panic about the Irwindale factory being shut down. People worried that they wouldn’t be able to get their beloved hot sauce anymore. I remember this panic of 2013. People were talking about how you might not be able to get Sriracha anymore, and they were stocking up. But what was actually happening in Irwindale at that time?

Well, shortly after David Tran moved his factory there, residents started to complain that they could smell the hot sauce fumes. The city decided to threaten the company with legal action, but the governor of California stepped in to intervene. We should note that the city had courted Huy Fong Foods to build their new factory there - they knew they would be bringing in a hot sauce company that would be grinding fresh peppers for a few months a year. Also, there were very few complaints from the residents, air quality regulators did not find an issue there, and the factory had been in another city, Rosemead, for over 30 years with no complaints. Anyhow, that's what was happening during the Sriracha shortage scare.

It's believed that the original Sriracha sauce was created by a woman named Thanom Chakkapak from a coastal town in Thailand called Si Racha. The original sauce is still being produced, and it is called "Sriraja Panich". It is sweeter and runnier than the Huy Fong Foods brand Sriracha that we know so well. 

Special Thanks to Our Interviewees:

Griffin Hammond - creator of the Sriracha documentary
Craig Underwood - owner of Underwood Farms
Ernesto Hernandez-Lopez - law professor