Will Rooster Sauce Fly the Coop?

Sriracha sauce -- the now-ubiquitous reddish-orange condiment with the rooster on the bottle -- has had a long path to achieving its current level of celebrity. Hard though it may be to believe, in 2001 it was estimated that its manufacturer, Huy Fong Foods, had made $12 million total since its inception in 1980--not an insignificant sum, but nothing next to the $60 million it was pulling down annually by 2012. By that time, Bon Appetit had named it Ingredient of the Year, Slate had discussed its viability as a tabletop alternative to black pepper, and, to keep pace with rising demand, the company had moved to a 655,000 square foot factory in Irwindale.

That's where the trouble began. Soon Irwindale's residents were complaining that the chili fumes from the factory were burning their eyes as well as triggering more severe ailments like asthma and heartburn. In October of last year, the city filed its first suit against the facility, and the ensuing legal battle has had devotees of the condiment on the edges of their seats hoping for a resolution that won't affect supply.

Story continues below

Are the complaints justified? That question was tantalizing enough that no less a publication than Scientific American felt compelled to take a crack at it. They say that the capsaicin in chili peppers can indeed be an irritant when airborne (it's actually the main ingredient in pepper spray), and that if there are residents of Irwindale who don't have a problem with it, it's because some people naturally have fewer capsaicin receptors than others.

The fume problem has been linked to the annual chili-crushing that the plant undertakes every fall for as long as three months. In November of 2013, an LA County Superior Court Judge hit the factory with a partial shutdown order, mandating that the company halt chili processing and make unspecified "immediate changes" to curtail the fume problem. Unsatisfied, the city of Irwindale filed a breach of contract suit against the company that is currently set to go to trial in November of this year.

While the fate of the Irwindale factory remains up in the air, Huy Fong Foods says local governments across the U.S. are clamoring to offer the company a new, friendlier home. In a letter to Huy Fong founder and CEO David Tran, Texas state representative Jason Villalba (R-114) referred to the company's hometown problems as "blatant obstructionism by a local city government." But Tran has been noncommittal about the possibility of relocating, saying that while the company might consider expanding someday, he'd prefer to keep it headquartered in SoCal.

He's not the only one. In many ways, Huy Fong's sauce is a quintessentially L.A. condiment. Sriracha sauce as a concept is thought to have originated in Si Racha, Thailand, from whence it spread to Vietnam as a popular addition to pho. Tran originally supplied his formulation to SoCal's wide variety of Asian restaurants, but it quickly caught on with taco trucks as well, and today it's not uncommon to see it on restaurant tables right next to the ketchup. As the New York Times put it, "Sriracha, as manufactured by Huy Fong Foods, may be best understood as an American sauce, a polyglot purée with roots in different places and peoples." No wonder so many Angelenos feel strongly about keeping it here.

Enter California Congressman Tony Cárdenas (D-29), who sees a place for Huy Fong Foods that is neither Texas nor Irwindale: the San Fernando Valley. On April 22, Rep. Cárdenas toured the current sriracha facility with the intention of discussing the possibility of opening a plant in his district. "The creator of sriracha is a wonderful example of working hard, innovating and living the American dream," Rep. Cárdenas said via e-mail. "He employs dozens of Americans trying to do the same. Creating those opportunities in the San Fernando Valley would be a huge addition to our community."

Rep. Cárdenas added that losing the factory to another state would be "unacceptable." "We are talking about a first-generation immigrant who proudly made his way to California, who has fought hard to build a successful business and who proudly uses California products in the wonderful hot sauce he creates," he said." We cannot allow him to leave the state when he is doing exactly what we tell our children to do: work hard, imagine a better life and fight hard until you achieve your goals."

Nobody's forcing Huy Fong's hand just yet--in fact, just last week Irwindale's city council delayed a vote on whether to declare the factory a public nuisance, and Mayor Mark Breceda told employees, "No one wants you here more, Huy Fong Foods, than this city council. I'm positive we can resolve the issue." But if the differences between Huy Fong and Irwindale prove irreconcilable, it's good to know that rooster sauce won't necessarily have to fly the coop.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading