Spicy or smelly, Sriracha rules Irwindale

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As the group approached Irwindale, we rolled down our windows, inhaling deeply. The air smelled sour, with a hint of spiciness. We thought we were experiencing the pungent stench of the Sriracha factory. What we smelled turned out to be not the beloved hot sauce, but wet mulch.

The group drew nearer to the headquarters of Sriracha manufacturer Huy Fong Foods. Though we continued to probe the air with our noses, we smelled nothing until arriving at the factory. The lack of aroma was due to the fact that the factory does not grind the red chillies that are a staple in Sriracha’s potent formula at this time of year.

That day at the factory was a typical Friday. Thousands of bottles were processed before the eyes of the tour group, as ingredients were mixed and emptied en masse into a never-ending queue of green-capped bottles. Everyone in the group wore hair nets to protect the sauce from contamination, and the tour guide was kind enough to give extras to the bearded members of the group.

A Vietnamese refugee, CEO of Huy Fong Foods David Tran immigrated to the United States in the late ’70s. He was born in the year of the rooster, explaining Sriracha’s distinct logo that is proudly displayed on a fountain in front of the factory.

The 650,000-square-foot factory is three years old but has been operational for only a little more than a year. In that time, its presence has not been as popular as the product it produces, despite the revenue it brings into the community.

The factory fills 3,000 bottles of Sriracha per hour, pumping out fiery liquid on an industrial scale six days per week. To keep production going at this pace, the factory processes 100 million pounds of fresh peppers per year.

The chillies are combined with sugar, salt, vinegar and garlic in a ratio fine-tuned by Tran, whose employees say he is a hands-on leader that gets involved in many steps of the production process.

The tour guide explained that “Sriracha” is a blanket term, used to refer to any sauce of the Southeast Asian variety. Such liberties allowed Tran to make a distinctly California version with local chillies he purchases exclusively from Underwood Family Farms near Rosemead, Calif.

As the factory prepares to ramp up for another chili grinding season, Tran is being pressured to present a solution or get out of town. Residents of Irwindale declared the factory a public nuisance and nearly shut it down in November 2013. Huy Fong has had to consider moving its operations entirely, looking elsewhere in California and even in Texas for new locations. When and if Tran will reveal such a solution is unknown. Employees at Sriracha factory declined to comment on the issue of pursuing a solution.

All guests are now required to sign a confidentiality agreement acknowledging that there will be questions the tour guides cannot answer. When the tour guide was asked what Tran was planning to do about the smell, she said she could not comment, but did say that the smell isn’t very severe, even during chili season.

The factory and its workers show no signs of slowing down. They are getting ready to release a new gallon-sized bottle of Sriracha, and all visitors are given a sample of the new 9 oz. bottle free of charge. The overall sentiment throughout the factory is that Sriracha is a Californian commodity poised to hold its ground in the state, even if that means relocating to a more adaptive community. Representatives from the San Fernando Valley are currently vying for the factory’s relocation in order to reap the economic benefits of the successful Sriracha business.

As the tour made its way toward the back of the factory, we passed the work stations of Sriracha’s mechanics. The guide pointed out that Tran operates such machinery regularly, designing and finetuning machines to make the factory run efficiently. Tran’s commitment to keeping his brand alive compliments his hands-on leaderships style and indicates that he will be on the lookout for a solution to his factory’s current tribulations. The next step for Sriracha will be a technological innovation to mitigate the factory’s emissions of the allegedly irritating fumes.