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A Close Call With The Beloved Sriracha

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 8:30am
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Maybe “goodbye” is a little early, but when it comes to loved ones, it’s never too soon.

Wednesday night, I heard, to my dismay, that the sole manufacturing facility for Sriracha hot sauce, located in Irwindale, Calif., may be shuttered. According to the city, allegations of burning eyes and throats have been rolling in — 30 or so in all, according to the Los Angeles Times — and it’s become enough for the city to declare the plant a “public nuisance” in violation of local ordinances regarding untoward odors.

The city has since lost their “radical” case, using verbiage from Judge Robert H. O’Brien, but says it will continue to pursue the case in other ways. More on that in a bit.

For fans of the spicy sauce — and there are many of us — the threat against Sriracha is tantamount to a disaster. Some have predicted a black market forming around the bottles still in circulation, while others, including the company’s owner, David Tran, have said its price is likely to rise. And it just may start a run on grocery stores. I know I considered it. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine just about any Asian-style food without it. Not to mention pizza, or eggs, or well, pretty much half the food I eat.

I know. It’s a problem.

Finding facts on the case, at this point in time, is pretty much impossible. All we have is one side, the city, who claims that there have been numerous complaints of noxious, burning fumes and generally bad smells, and Tran, who has said the plant already features numerous exhaust filtering systems, installed after previous concerns. The local newspapers seem to have no trouble finding those nearby who are not affected by the plant’s exhaust, nor are they concerned by it.

Since the incredible rise in Sriracha’s popularity, Tran himself, who immigrated from Vietnam more than 30 years ago and established Huy Fong Foods, has gained a certain amount of admiration — and notoriety — from fans and detractors alike. Sriracha fans admire his quest for quality, in which he demands that chilies are processed within a day of being picked, for prime freshness. Even better is the fact that his company has grown exponentially based on that quality alone — Tran has never spent a penny on advertising, and has no plans to change that. In part, it’s because his company simply couldn’t handle any additional demand.

But, perhaps, his cavalier business approach has offended a few people in the greater business community. The online publication Quartz was fortunate enough to score an interview with Tran a few weeks ago, in which Tran admits that he began the business with his “eyes closed,” and still runs the business much the same way. He doesn’t know where his sauces are being distributed, and won’t offer any details into the profits or true growth of the company ­— other than it’s easily in the double digits.

And on the matter of profits, Tran seems to eschew them completely. In the Quartz interview, he mentions that his company has been in the eye of investors who have wanted a piece of the action, or to buy the company outright. In fact, the reason he doesn’t talk about his success is to aid in the effort of keeping those people away. Tran said, “People who come here are never interested in the product, only in the profits.”

Even further, Tran doesn’t much care about how those profits might affect himself. In the same article, he’s quoted as saying his goal “was never to become a billionaire,” but rather “to make enough fresh chili sauce so that everyone who wants Huy Fong can have it. Nothing more.”

Perhaps this is part of his recent troubles — he a businessman who seems decidedly “anti-business.” Most cities appreciate having a massively-growing business, which supplies jobs and tax revenue, in their boundaries. But something about the Irwindale situation seems to suggest otherwise, and even Tran is quoted as saying that the city has, suddenly, become “not friendly” to his business.

But here’s the problem for Irwindale — those 30 complaints aside, Tran holds all the cards. Well, at least most of them. I would guess that there are other municipalities in the area that would be more than happy to have Tran’s business — and the supposed chili smell — on their own streets. He’s mentioned that because of his insistence for freshness that he can’t move to another state, because those chilies need to be processed immediately. And he can’t move both the plant and the farm, because not every piece of land is suitable for growing chilies. Perhaps that’s Irwindale’s angle.

More than anything else, this case proves just how important it is for manufacturers to find a municipality that is not only happy to have a business, but will fight for its existence. I feel that too few companies fully take advantage of that dynamic. And based on conversations I’ve had with economic development agencies all around the country, there’s no lack of locations happy to be home to manufacturers — chilies or not. Tran: check out Riverside or City of Industry (or any of the other dozen cities in the Southland area). They would probably be amenable.

For a city to court a manufacturer and then pursue, rather relentlessly, a shutdown that would, ironically, prevent further air quality testing and put a company into dire straits for the next nine months — its suspicious, to say the least. I hope Tran can find some means of compromise, or the courage to move the business, if need be. Because for the Sriracha addicts out there, it’s a scary time.

And because I have to end on a snarky note: To those who complained about the Sriracha smell, I’d encourage you to eat more of the sauce. For one, it’s delicious. It adds flavor but doesn’t overpower the dish itself. Like all good condiments, it can be added sparingly or overwhelmingly. It’s incredibly versatile. And best of all, eating more of it will increase your tolerance to capsaicin, which will, in turn, decrease your discomfort to spice! It’s a win-win-win.

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