Sriracha: How a Vietnamese refugee made a hot-sauce fortune
A city lawsuit over fumes emanating from the chili sauce factory draws attention to the man who just couldn't find a sauce that he liked — so he made his own.
Wed, Oct 30, 2013 at 12:42 PM
Neighbors who live near the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale, Calif., have had enough of the smell of Sriracha.
The rest of the country may covet the spicy sauce, but the city has filed a public nuisance lawsuit seeking temporary closure of the factory until the company submits a plan to minimize the fumes. (Given the faithful following of the rooster-emblazoned bottle, if the factory is indeed closed, there may be panic and hoarding — if not civil unrest.)
In a country that once relied on little more than ketchup and Tabasco sauce to pep up its food, how did exotic Sriracha become such a superstar? The purée of fresh red jalapeños, garlic, sugar, salt and vinegar is used by everyone from A-list chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who incorporates it into his menus, to mega chains like Applebee’s, where it can be found spiking the mayo for fried shrimp.
Zealots sport Sriracha rooster tattoos, unofficial Facebook fan pages have tens of thousands of followers, and it's not uncommon to see giant walking Sriracha bottles on Halloween. Demand for the sauce is so high that the factory pumps out some 7,500 bottles of the special hot sauce each hour.
All this from the vision of one man, David Tran, a refugee from South Vietnam. Tran fled with his family to the United States when North Vietnam’s communists took power. Finally settling in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Tran, unemployed and unable to find a hot sauce he liked, decided to start making his own, as he had done back home. He started by mixing it in buckets, hand-bottling it, and driving it to customers in a van. He named his company after the Huy Fong, the Taiwanese freighter that brought him to America. The now-cultish rooster logo is a nod to his Chinese astrology sign; although raised in Vietnam, Tran is of Chinese heritage.
The sauce that Tran devised was his (loose) interpretation of a traditional chili sauce originating in Sriracha, a town in Chonburi Province, Thailand. Tran’s stroke of brilliance was in finding a balance to appeal to a broader market.
“I made this sauce for the Asian community,” Tran told The New York Times. “But I wanted something that I could sell to more than just the Vietnamese,” he continued. “After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?’”
And indeed, it seems as if just about everyone is buying it. Huy Fong Foods sells more than $60 million of Sriracha each year. The company is growing by an estimated 20 percent a year, despite a complete lack of advertising.
Tran told the Los Angeles Times that his American dream was never to become a billionaire; he just liked hot sauce. In the meantime, he has turned down numerous lucrative offers to sell the company, afraid that his vision would be compromised.
"This company, she is like a loved one to me, like family. Why would I share my loved one with someone else?" Tran said.
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