Originally published December 22, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
Sriracha, the bright red sauce that delivers the fiery, garlicky, yet somewhat sweet kick has finally seemed to find its well deserved place in the land of foodie sunshine. Many do not realize that this pungent condiment, in the clear bottle with the neon green cap, is as California as the skateboard or the hula hoop. Conceptualized, invented and created right here in the City of Angels, the brain child of a Vietnamese immigrant seeking to recreate a piece of his Asian past while the sunny Los Angeles future of his imagination rolled out its invitational red carpet. David Tran has been quite successful at manifesting the American Dream. From originally stirring up homemade chili sauce by hand in 5-gallon buckets and packaging his spicy creation in recycled Gerber baby food jars, he eventually evolved his humble business into a $60 million dollar enterprise through word of mouth alone, without using any form of advertising.
After fleeing Vietnam in late 1979, Tran arrived in Los Angeles in early 1980 as part of the Vietnamese Boat People migration. He immediately set to work creating his signature Sriracha, a blend of fresh chili pepper paste, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar. It is a totally raw food product, never cooked. Operating out of a 5,000-square foot building in Downtown L.A. and delivering his product himself to local restaurants, he named his company Huy Fong Foods after the boat that transported his family to the safety of his California dream. The well recognized rooster on the bottle represents Tran’s astrological birth sign. Over 34 years later, both the popularity of his Sriracha and the company itself have exploded with growth. In 1987 the company moved to a factory in Rosemead almost fifty times as large as the first and by 2012 over 20 million bottles of Sriracha were being sold. Finally, in 2014, Huy Fong Foods moved to Irwindale and settled in an even bigger, more state-of-the-art factory, completely designed by Tran himself. At this time, the company made news when residential neighbors became vocal about fumes emanating from the new Irwindale facility. Using public relations, Tran decided to open his doors with hospitality to public tours so people could see for themselves what was really going on inside the glossy new factory walls. This squashed the mystery and the complaints.
The tours are free and scheduled by appointment. Donning hairnets, visitors are driven through the truck delivery area where about 600-800 tons of fresh California grown jalapeños are delivered per day during chili grinding season, roughly a 4-month period between August and November. During this time the factory stays in production 24-hours a day, 6 days a week to keep up with the flow. Tours watch the fresh peppers being poured into the hoppers to transport them to be cleaned and then ground up. Then the ground chili paste is mixed with vinegar and salt and stored in blue 55-gallon jugs to eventually be transported through a circuitry of pipes to be mixed with the other ingredients. Huy Fong Foods also makes two other sauces besides its well-known Sriracha: Sambal Oelek and Chili Garlic sauce. When chili grinding season is over, the tours are a lot less visual and exiting, but are interesting nonetheless.
Visitors who arrive after peak grinding season miss that fundamental part of the tour, but can still find fascination in watching an endless steam of conveyer-fed Sriracha bottles being made, laser printed with labels and filled with the celebrated sauce. All of the plastic bottles and even the large blue jugs are manufactured on the premisses as well, making this truly a local business. After the factory tour is concluded, guests are taken to the Sriracha gift shop where an array of very cool t-shirts, in many styles, range in price from $5-$10. Visitors are also given a souvenir bottle of Sriracha to spice up their next meal.
Huy Fong Foods: 4800 Azusa Canyon Road, Irwindale, CA 91706; (626) 286-8328.