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By: Christy Au-Yeung
Almost no one in North America had heard of Sriracha (pronounced “see-RAH- cha”) a decade ago, but today the red-hot chili sauce is spreading all over the world. Easily recognizable by the distinctive big red bottle, green cap and rooster logo, Sriracha has catapulted from cult hit with college kids to main condiment seen everywhere, and on everything— from pizza and burgers to chips, candy, and even vodka.
David Tran, 72, an immigrant from Vietnam built his hot sauce empire from nothing. When he was a young man growing up in a village near Saigon, he produced his first hot sauce called Pepper Sa-te. The chili was bottled in recycled glass baby food jars then sold and delivered by bicycle. In 1979, following the Vietnam War, Tran, who was a major in the South Vietnamese army, escaped Vietnam with his family on a Taiwanese freighter called Huey Fong. The freighter inspired the name of his company, Huy Fong Foods.
After settling in Los Angeles, Tran couldn’t find a job, or a hot sauce to his liking. So he decided to make his own. In 1980, Tran began creating sauces in a 5,000 square foot building nestled near Chinatown. In addition to Sriracha, he came up with other sauces such as Chili Garlic Sauce and Sambal Oelek. In these early days, he bottled and delivered his products to local Asian food restaurants in his hand-painted blue Chevy van.
Within a year, news of Tran’s delicious “secret” sauces spread in the neighbourhood. Now, almost 40 years later, Huy Fong has expanded into a $60 million company that produces more than 20 million bottles of Sriracha every year. Unbelievably, the multimillion dollar company has never spent a dollar on advertising, nor does it employ one single salesperson. Huy Fong’s success and fandom are built primarily through word-of- mouth.
In 2014, Tran caught the media’s attention when the City of Irwindale, Calif., where his factory is now located, filed a lawsuit against his company, declaring it a public nuisance. Residents near the factory complained of headaches, heartburn and burning eyes caused by the pungent odor of chili peppers. In response, Tran cultivated a culture of transparency by offering public open houses at the 650,000-square-foot plant, and asked each participant if they experienced any adverse reactions. City officials tabled a resolution and dropped the lawsuit after Tran made a written commitment to solve any smell issues the city identified.
Tran’s goal has been to make a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price. He wasn’t driven by quick riches, but instead by the desire to make a quality hot sauce. The wholesale prices of his sauces have not been raised since their launch. Today, he keeps his hot sauce empire a family business. He has turned down lucrative offers to sell his company in fear that others are only interested in profits, but not the product. At the end of the day, Tran is committed to providing people around the world with a hot sauce worthy of their dishes.