I inherited my love of factory tours from my late father, who rarely missed an opportunity to schlep us kids to something (a) educational and (b) free. Among many other jaunts, I clearly remember touring a Chevrolet factory (loud) and a Chicken of the Sea tuna factory (smelly). I’m sure Dad would have approved of the Huy Fong hot-sauce factory in Irwindale (Los Angeles County), California, where the tour isn’t just educational and free, but also concludes with a giveaway: a generous bottle of one of the three Huy Fong products – sriracha, chili-garlic paste, or sambal oelek.
What’s more, the founder of Huy Fong is an immigrant, as was my father. David Tran was born in Vietnam in 1945 into an ethnic-Chinese family that was exiled by the Communist government in 1979. The Taiwanese ship on which he departed was called the Huey Fong – “gathering prosperity” – and Tran adapted the propitious name for the company he founded in Los Angeles in 1980.
Figure of Huy Fong founder David Tran with oversize sriracha bottle, in the training room at Huy Fong headquarters.
One Friday earlier this month I went on a public tour of the Huy Fong factory with my brother Michael and our mutual friend Mr. Gadget. The factory floor is vast – 650,000 square feet – predictably noisy (production was in full swing), and thinly populated: the company employs only 90 humans, including back-office staff.
I neglected to take an exterior photo of the headquarters. This one is from the “hot sauce, BBQ, & spicy food blog” of Scott Roberts, who interviewed David Tran a few years ago.
The factory itself is a marvel (see photos, below), but it was the pre- and post-tour experiences – witty, nutty, and utterly devoted to the brand – that really enchanted me.
We started in the large training room, which incorporates a bizarro gallery.
Extinguisher-size sriracha fire extinguisher. “Fighting fire with fire?” a friend of mine quipped when I showed her the photo.
Digital collage by artist Chris Christion combining the faces of Thomas Jefferson and David Tran.
Explanatory text, missing a closing quotation mark.
Some sort of … shrine? The rooster, by the way, is an homage to David Tran’s birth year, 1945, which according to Chinese astrology was the year of the rooster. (The Chinese zodiac operates on an 12-year cycle, so 2017 is also a rooster year.) For some background on the rooster drawing that adorns every Huy Fong bottle, see this Adweek story.
Still in the training room! While I was snapping these photos, a disco ball with colored lights was whirling on the ceiling behind me, lending a strobe-like glow to a corporate-video montage on a large screen. I caught a bit of this Lexus video.
The company is best known for its sriracha sauce – it’s pronounced see-RAH-cha, by the way, as though the first R weren’t there – which is Tran’s take on a Thai chili sauce and named for the Thai village of Si Racha. Tran never registered “Sriracha” as a trademark, in part because of the challenges of legally owning a place name. As a result, a couple dozen companies other than Huy Fong own, or have applied for, trademark protection for “sriracha” as part of their brand names. Most of them are food brands – Gotcha Sriracha, Ass Kickin’ Sriracha, Cha Cha Sriracha Flatbread, etc. – but there’s also a registered trademark for Sriracha “live rose plants.” The plant is in fact a cuphea, not a rose.
Cuphea ‘sriracha rose.’ Trademark registered to Park Seed Co. of Hodges, South Carolina.
The Irwindale plant is the third Huy Fong location. The company was founded in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, later moved to Rosemead, and broke ground on the Irwindale factory in 2010. After neighbors complained in 2014 about fumes from the Irwindale operation causing health problems, the city – previously better known for its gravel pits – declared the factory a public nuisance. Tran and the city council negotiated a settlement, and #srirachapocalypse was avoided.
The plastic bottles are made on site from these plastic blanks.
The bottling line. The green caps are imported from China. (Photo by my brother Michael.)
The 55-gallon blue vats are manufactured in the plant. The sauce, made from jalapeño peppers (grown in Ventura and Kern counties), garlic, vinegar, sugar, salt, xantham gum, and preservatives, is not cooked, and does not require refrigeration. (Photo by Michael.)
After the tour, we were guided into the compact, well-stocked gift shop, where we picked up our free samples and gawked at a staggering array of merchandise and objets d’art.
Some of it isn’t for sale, like this Rogue Sriracha Hot Stout Beer (“Dedicated to the Rooster”).
T-shirts, pajamas, and underwear are all available for purchase, though. I bought this T-shirt (and, OK, a few others).
I regret not buying this one.
Many T-shirts are just $2.
Sriracha sippy cups, because why not.
Artwork made from sriracha bottles on display in the gift shop (but not for sale there).
“Dear Sriracha”: Ode to sriracha by The Oatmeal (comic artist Matthew Inman); also available at The Oatmeal shop. Huy Fong has never advertised, but its customers are happy to provide free PR.
While there have been many articles written about David Tran and Huy Fong – “The Willy Wonka of Sriracha” appeared in The Atlantic in 2014 – there is no official corporate history, just a desultorily edited and cheaply printed brochure. Let’s remedy that oversight, shall we?
Meanwhile, if you find yourself in Southern California on a Saturday between September 23 and October 14, you can attend the Huy Fong chili grinding open house: “Experience grinding season in full production, from seed to sauce. Free sampling, t-shirts, and a lion dance performance!” Register here.