So, this week for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Little Laos on the Prairie took a field trip to the production facilities of one of the most iconic products of Asian America in the last 30 years: Sriracha! We were graciously allowed to tour Huy Fong Foods in Irwindale, California. Also, I woke up to find an empty bottle of Sriracha in the house. Clearly, we needed to fix that right away!
Sriracha is easily a contender for the world’s most beloved hot sauce, but if we have to tell you that, you’re apparently living under a rock. Founded nearly 30 years ago by entrepreneur David Tran, it’s a pretty basic recipe: chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. But Mr. Tran does it better than just about anyone else. The company gets its name from the ship Mr. Tran came on when he left Vietnam. Mr. Tran started making hot sauces with his brother in Los Angeles in 1980 and the ambitious venture became a runaway success. Today the factory is located in Irwindale, California, but as most of us know, that may not be the case for long.
The city of Irwindale is mostly a big patch of nothing, home to 17 gravel pits, a beer bottling factory and not much else. You can’t hop onto Google and find many recommendations for it as a tourist destination, although they do have a recreation center to serve a population hovering around 1,500. Irwindale stepped into a controversy earlier this year getting into a bureaucratic fight with Huy Fong Foods, who they originally lured away from Rosemead to build a $4 million factory that generates about $300 million in sales annually.
Approximately 4 households have complained about fumes from the factory. This lead to the Irwindale city council declaring it a public nuisance, and now Huy Fong Foods might close down this factory and relocate instead of dealing with the hassle.
On May 15th, a delegation from Texas will visit to discuss the possibility of moving Huy Fong Foods to the Lone Star State. Irwindale officials are definitely adding hot sauce to the fire as California struggles with a reputation of driving businesses away, including those built by refugees and immigrants. At least 9 other states and several other California cities are clamoring for the chance to attract the company and its jobs. Year-round, Huy Fong Foods employs 80 people, and during the peak processing season adds at least 100 more.
Huy Fong Foods has been offering free tours so the community can judge for itself. Arriving in Irwindale, there’s the scent of industrial fumes, but nothing remotely close to what you’d expect from a place that cranks out over 10 million bottles of Sriracha a year. The Little Laos on the Prairie team spent an hour in the neighborhood around noon and didn’t smell anything out of place. But others might have different experiences.
Mr. Tran has been understandably reluctant to move. A key part of his acclaimed recipe has been the chilies from Underwood Farms near Ventura county. He freshly grinds the peppers the same day they are picked. He has worked closely with Underwood Farms for the last 25+ years. Underwood Farms is currently the only farm in the world Huy Fong Foods uses for the red jalapenos in Sriracha. It’s a remarkable relationship.
Touring the factory made me wonder where the Lao American entrepreneurs were, not just in Minnesota but across the country. Mr. Tran clearly learned from Henry John Heinz’s famous philosophy, “Do something common uncommonly well.” Might we one day see a Lao-owned company like Cool Jerk beef jerky take it to the next level? Who’s working to perfect a great, store-stable version of jaew bong, padaek, or a som ba pickled fish factory that might become as big as the Olsen Fish Company in North Minneapolis? Ultimately, with so many Lao in Minnesota, we have to ask, what’s really holding us back from an era of innovation? Where is our entrepreneurial leadership? There’s a lot we can learn from the Tran family’s success story.
On the 30-minute tour you get some inspiring figures. The factory operates 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. Every day except Sunday, a fleet of at least 40 trucks use the 25 loading docks to load up 23 pallets of Sriracha per truck. Each pallet is loaded with 106 boxes with 12 bottles per box. You do the math from there.
Mr. Tran designed the building personally, and it uses natural skylights rather than fluorescent lighting during the daytime. They have machines on hand to manufacture all of their bottles at the factory. It’s inspiring to see so much entrepreneurial spirit in action. It’s unbelievable that a city would want to drive away that kind of economic activity.
In their 650,000 foot square factory, there are four giant chili grinders used in the fall to process the red jalapenos when they come in. Because he uses all natural ingredients, from year to year, the sauces will reflect slight variations. Sometimes a crop might be spicer, or darker, maybe lighter, etc. But Huy Fong Foods always makes certain that each year’s batch will live up to their exacting standards.
They keep a team of mechanics on-site around the clock to fix anything that breaks down, considering how much is at stake for them. Besides the grinders, there are sorters, bottle makers, and a wide variety of robots who automate processes like boxing and shrink-wrapping the bottles for transit.
David Tran demonstrates great leadership standing by his company. He’s at his company every day, although we didn’t get a chance to meet him on this visit. Sriracha is one of those rare products that exploded onto the scene through word of mouth rather than advertising.
Since Mr. Tran began Huy Fong Foods, Sriracha has become a fundamental staple of restaurants and kitchens around the world. If you don’t have some in a Lao American house, you’re going to get a pretty strange look. It’s become such an iconic part of Lao American life, spoken word artist Catzie Vilayphonh and her daughter Aditi once went as a bottle for Halloween!
Mr. Tran and his family have roots in Long Binh, a village just north of Saigon, where he and his older brother made a variety of different sauces together. Around 1979, Mr. Tran and his family began their journey as part of the Southeast Asian diaspora. Initially, Mr. Tran was resettled in Boston, while his brother was in Los Angeles. When he leaned that there were red peppers in Los Angeles, history was made as Mr. Tran packed up and left for the West Coast. Boston can now only wonder what might have been.
Oh, and at the end of the tour you get an awesome 9 oz. bottle of Sriracha. Off to find lunch!
~Bryan Thao Worra