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Sriracha and Irwindale: The War May Not Be Over as Questions Remain

 

Last week the broadcast media did one of those giddy dances it does whenever popular culture bumps up against politics. Hip hot sauce maker Huy Fong Foods was rescued from the wrath of the Irwindale City Council by last-minute negotiations that were reported in summit meeting terms. The rush to shut down the sriracha plant -- sending tremors from Bon Appétit magazine to the counters of gastropubs everywhere -- had been stopped.

Diners breathed a garlicky sigh of relief over their peanut butter, sriracha, and basil sandwiches (any anything else you will squeeze it over). The sriracha plant's stinks and eye searing exhalations -- the reason why Irwindale officials said they wanted to brand the plant as a public nuisance -- had turned out to be, according to the Air Quality Management District, no big deal.

For the media, the decision to keep Huy Fong Foods in business in Irwindale was a big win, but for whom and for what end?

If you heard the news, the big winner was Governor Jerry Brown.

The story spun by Kish Rajan, director of the governor's Office of Business and Economic Development, and L.A. County Economic Development Corporation's director of public relations Lawren Markle, had the two agencies collaborating to rescue Huy Fong Foods from the clutches of Texas. "See, California is, too, a business-friendly state" was the hoped for takeaway for the governor's primary election campaign, in hasty answer to Toyota's announcement that the auto company will move its national headquarters and about 3,000 white-collar jobs from Torrance to Plano, Texas.

Barely mentioned in reporting the hot sauce news was this angle. The governor's strike team brought Huy Fong CEO David Tran and a committee of Irwindale city council members to the negotiating table, but mostly so the governor's office could issue a press release.

No incentives to stay in Irwindale or California were offered Tran to compete with those that the representatives of Texas hinted at. Tran did not walk back his earlier statements about expanding to locations outside California. No comment came from Tran or Irwindale's mayor to explain how the sriracha plant was saved or why city officials decided that their opposition to the plant should end.

According to Albert Gersh, a Republican Party operative in Irwindale, the city council accepted a face saving end to a conflict that the media had blown up to global proportions. The governor's intervention was just an expedient to get the city council out of hot water.

A darker narrative suggested that the conflict between Tran and city hall is personal. It seems that a worried Tran, once he got to know the politics of Irwindale, bought Huy Fong Foods out of a lease deal with the city, costing the city millions in future revenue.

Something didn't smell right when the Los Angeles Times reported in February "Some of the most vigorous complaints (about odors from the sriracha plant) have come from Irwindale City Councilman Hector Ortiz's son, according to court records." As the son's complaints continued, Tran's reluctance to negotiate with the city council hardened.

Perhaps the end of the hot sauce war isn't an end at all, just a strategic cease fire. And if the sriracha story is actually about a blood feud between an overreaching city council and a sullen entrepreneur selling a charismatic product, no one -- not even the governor -- wins.

For the Record: An earlier version of this story identified Lawren Markle as working with the Governor's office instead of the LAEDC. We regret the error.

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