VWK reader F. Ball is sort of my Sriracha watchdog. He sent me the above photo a while back, taken from a Bed Bath and Beyond, to demonstrate how mainstream Sriracha has become. Lately, he’s been keeping me updated on the drama surrounding Huy Fong’s factory problems with the City of Irwindale (people complained that the smell of fermenting chiles are a health hazard). My husband, who avidly reads the Los Angeles Times online, is like my deputy Sriracha watchdog.
Last Thursday, F. emailed a Grub Street tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving the Sriracha ban; he included the hash tag #Srirachapocalypse to convey the enormity of the situation. I got a chuckle from the post, which suggested rationing, but then I stepped back and realized that there is a lot to learn from this spicy, fermented mess.
For one, if you’ve been following the Huy Fong Sriracha news, you may have gleaned a lot of interesting information about the company, which has over the years, been low-key about its business strategies and manufacturing processes. David Tran and Huy Fong are now a hot topic on the food scene and the media attention has thrust the company into the spotlight. The outflow of details on the company, hot sauce industry, and immigrant business entrepreneurship is fascinating.
Frank Shyong, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times has been on the Huy Fong hot sauce trail all year long, including this Q&A with company owner David Tran in April, 2013. The company’s legal issues with Irwindale exploded in late October and Shyong’s November 9 story included these meaty facts:
- To entice Huy Fong to relocate, the City of Irwindale struck a financial deal: We’ll give you an interest free loan for 10 years if you build your $40 million factory in our city. Huy Fong agreed and also contributed $250,000 a year to the city.
- In 2012, Huy Fong’s hot sauce sales were $60 million. Operating at full capacity, the new Irwindale actory expected to generate $300 million in annual sales.
- Huy Fong moved to Irwindale three years ago. Starting in 2012, there were complaints from Irwindale residents.
- The complaints were a red flag to Huy Fong, which took out a bank loan to pay off the city of Irwindale early.
Because of the odor complaints, the city of Irwindale sued Huy Fong to stop production. A judge eventually ordered a partial shutdown and the matter is pending an investigation into what part of the factory actually makes all the smell that bothers Irwindale residents.
Irwindale is home to giant MillerCoors Brewer and a dog food manufacturer. No one complained about the smells from those factories, said a 30-year resident. (If you’ve been to Irwindale, it’s an industrial town. It’s not pretty.) In the scheme of mass produced, mainstream food production, it’s a major hat tip that Huy Fong is now in Irwindale. Asian hot sauce has arrived big time, so to speak.
This week’s news of the State mandating that Huy Fong halt hot sauce shipments for 30 days pending inspection for bacteria was revelatory. For one, the Rooster’s Sriracha is uncooked. Because I’ve made my own Sriracha from scratch, I always assumed that Huy Fong did the same. The fact that the Rooster sauce is a raw product explains its harsh taste compared to that of Thai brands.
There’s nothing harmful about the sauce, reported the LA Times, but California State health inspectors want to hold the bottles for 30 days to ensure that no bad bacteria is present. That’s a major kink in the Sriracha delivery pipeline.
Additionally, it seems weird that Huy Fong has been making its Sriracha in this manner for years but no one paid attention to the bacteria issue until now. Perhaps the regulation is new? Or, perhaps the legal battle with the City of Irwindale drew attention to Huy Fong’s manufacturing process. I wonder because if the company paid off that loan to the city, the city would no longer expect to receive an annual $250,000 contribution to its coffers; do the easy math and that’s a loss of $1.75 million over the course of seven years.
Maybe this is a tit-for-tat situation between the City of Irwindale and Huy Fong Foods. I’m not sure, but what is so extraordinary is that within a relatively short amount of time, the company has become a top news story. To date, Huy Fong has not spent any money on publicity to become a super trendy food product with a cult-like following.
There’s a part of me that loves Huy Fong owner David Tran’s American success story but I’m also wary of it. For example, because the Rooster’s Sriracha sauce can be found at nearly all pho shops, people assume that it’s the perfect pho pairing. A little on the side with hoisin is okay but squirt it directly into your pho bowl and you’ll obliterate the flavors of a well-brewed broth.
Additionally, the Rooster’s popularity has led people to think that it’s the definitive Sriracha sauce, that all others are imposters, poseurs. Sriracha is Thai in origin, and there are many wonderful Thai brands of Sriracha, such as Shark, which I enjoy much more than assertive Rooster brand. Earlier this year, I wrote a post for Bon Appetit magazine’s website on the original Thai Sriracha sauce. Thai-made Sriracha is nuanced and can be eaten practically like ketchup. It doesn’t light a four-alarm fire in your belly.
Perhaps a result of #Srirachapocalypse is that people will broaden their Sriracha horizons and try other brands. Perhaps they’ll squirt less or squirt no Sriracha into pho. Whatever the outcome of the Rooster Sauce’s drama, it has really heated things up.
Related posts and links:
- DIY Sriracha Chile Sauce recipe (if you can’t buy it, make it)
- Sriracha Taste Off: Thailand vs. America vs. Vietnam
- Southeast Asian Hot Sauce Round-up (a post I did for BonAppetit.com)
- 3 Indonesian Hot Sauces to Try
- Sriracha myths, truths, and confusion