Hot sauce and law suits – the Sriracha story

The recent Sriracha lawsuit captured the hearts and minds of chilli lovers everywhere. Christina Wong reports on the suit that broke the City’s back.

The annual chilli-grinding season was off to a positive start a few weeks ago at Huy Fong Foods, Inc., makers of the infamous Sriracha, the popular hot sauce characterised by its clear plastic bottle, green bottle cap, and rooster logo. The company welcomed the season by opening its doors to the public, offering tastings and tours to its facilities. Back in December, the company hung a “NO TEAR GAS MADE HERE” banner as a response to the ruling made by the Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to shut down the factory because of its smell. In the past, CEO David Tran, was protective of the secrets to his sauce; now, he’s on a mission to prove that Huy Fong makes hot sauce and not tear gas.

A family business that started from humble beginnings on the streets of Los Angeles’ China Town in 1980, Huy Fong relocated to a factory in Rosemead, CA in 1986, then opened a new facility in Irwindale, CA in 2010 following a loan from the City of Irwindale. Throughout that time, Tran’s Sriracha has become both a global household name and within the hot sauce market, and is practically a staple condiment alongside the soy sauce found in Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants.

Tran immigrated to the States from Vietnam in 1979, where he also produced and sold a hot sauce named Pepper Saté, which became Huy Fong’s first product to be sold stateside. Tran told me he wanted to make sauces “that represent different types of Asian hot sauces, such as sambal oelek (Indonesia), chilli garlic sauce (Vietnamese), and Sriracha (Thailand). But I customised the flavours to my own taste.”

Last year, Sriracha sales were at $60 million dollars, selling over 20 million bottles, making it Huy Fong’s best-selling item. It’s a versatile product; on the bottle it even says it can be used in “soups, sauces, pasta, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, chow mein or on anything to add a delicious, spicy taste”. The sauce has spawned at least three culinary festivals, a multitude of cookbooks, souvenirs, and even a documentary.

Then erupted the media pandemonium of a possible Sriracha shortage, advising fans to stock up. The controversy for the 34-year-old company began in September 2013 when the City of Irwindale received complaints regarding the smell that was emanating from its facility. (According to the LA Times, City councillor H. Manuel Ortiz’s son, Manuel Ortiz Jr, filed the initial complaint.) The smell is said to have caused coughing fits, headaches, and burning eyes. In the following months, the City sent a notice of violation to Huy Fong, and filed a lawsuit against the company, requesting a temporary restraining order. Though the restraining order was denied, the Court ordered the company to partially shut down the operations that caused the smell.

In response, the company hung a banner that stated: “NO TEAR GAS MADE HERE.” Rifled with delays, it wasn’t until April 2014 that the City declared the smell emanating from Huy Fong Foods a public nuisance. As a result, the company had 90 days to address the smell and contain the fumes. A month later, however, Council voted unanimously to drop the public nuisance declaration and lawsuit after Tran installed a new filtration system at the facility. He also wrote a letter to Council promising to make any changes the City deems appropriate to combating the smell.

The LA Times reported that the South Coast Air Quality Management District was unable to find sufficient evidence to a smell that would warrant a violation. So why was the City so vested in filing a public nuisance declaration, with no reports of toxicity filed against its Rosemead factory? Tran says there are a couple of theories: because Huy Fong Foods had made an early full repayment of its “interest-only” loan to the City, or that a competitor offered a deal to the City to shut them down. It’s hard to say whether either holds any water, but what’s certain is the amount of support that Tran had when the conflict first erupted. He was even approached by a delegation from Texas to woo his hot sauce company to its state. For Tran, it was never about the profits, but about making a sauce that was fresh, tasty, and affordable.

This isn’t the first time food odours have been considered public nuisances. Looking through the history books, public abattoirs were found in urban centres; though very few remain now. Far removed from a Sriracha smell, of course, the smells coming from abattoirs were considered offensive, especially by those who resided near them.

In April 2014, Toronto’s Quality Meat Packers, the remaining abattoir found within the downtown core, filed for bankruptcy protection, and was eventually shut down in May. Journalist Shawn Micallef lamented the loss of this abattoir because it meant Toronto no longer has that “direct and visceral connection to meat production”. And the same would be true if the Sriracha factories were to close. Perhaps it’s easy for me to defend because I don’t live within the vicinity of a Sriracha factory, but having such a facility like Huy Fong that uses homegrown produce (from local farm Underwood Family Farms), to create a product that is proudly made in the States (often Sriracha is mistaken for an Asian import), is an important heritage that should be championed.

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