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A Rich Man’s Sauce

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Sriracha sauce. You’ve all had it. The spicy, tangy, delicious condiment that adds pop to any dish. In recent years, it’s moved from ethnic fringe food, to hipster cool, and into mainstream ubiquity. So much so that Lays was considering a sriracha flavored potato chip until America voted instead for chicken and waffles (blech). Sriracha’s popularity made me wonder where all that delicious sauce came from. My wife and I took a trip to Irwindale, California to find out and learned something about the American Dream in the process.

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Sriracha is a generic term, like ketchup, but most people use it to refer to the sauce produced by Huy Fong Foods. You know, the one with the rooster on it. Huy Fong Foods held an open house to the public so curious lookie-loos could tour the facility and view the production process. My wife and I were one of the lucky invitees. It was kind of like winning a Golden Ticket from Willy Wonka, except there appeared to be thousands of Golden Tickets instead of just five. Also, it didn’t appear that accepting an invite to the sriracha factory will put us in line to be the next owner.

Huy Fong Foods’ production facility is an impressive 23 acres of sprawling warehouse, office, and production space. It looked like an outlet mall, complete with a front entrance framed by a fountain and palm trees. I don’t mean this pejoratively. It was a freaking nice facility. One, we were informed, captured the vision of Huy Fong Foods’ founder, David Tran.

Tran arrived in the US in 1979 after fleeing Vietnam following the Vietnam War. The company’s name is in homage to the freighter that carried Tran and other refugees out of Vietnam, the Huey Fong. Tran founded his company in 1980, and what started out as a modest operation in LA’s Chinatown has grown into a robust hot sauce empire whose mission is to make a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price. Tran’s success is a testament to everything right about America. I mean, the guy started making sauce in buckets then hustling around town to local restaurants and stores.

My wife and I donned our hairnets and began the self-guided tour, starting with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the diminutive Tran in a tuxedo. He welcomed us and directed us to the warehouse, which was packed with boxes of sriracha sauce headed to exotic locales, such as Canada. It was sort of mind boggling to think how much sriracha sauce the world consumes. Next, we were directed outside to a line of trucks filled with red chili peppers waiting to unload their cargo. At the front of the line was a sorter that took the chilies and ran them through a bath before dumping them into giant grinders.

I assumed the grinding area was the highlight of the tour since it was chili grinding season. Unfortunately, the vapor from ground up chilis made my eyes water and induced violent coughing. I can see why the City of Irwindale filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong a few years ago. It’s a wonder how any of the employees minding the machinery could stand there for hours on end. They must have super human sinuses.

My wife and I scurried out of the grinding area and made our way to the part of the facility where the base chili sauce was made from the ground up chilis. The base was stored into large blue barrels and later turned into a number of products, including that sweet red manna from the heavens we know as sriracha sauce. After the blue barrels, we saw the bottling machine, which did double duty by making each plastic bottle before filling it with red deliciousness. Finally, we came to the end of the line — packaging. Although there were several employees in this area, the bulk of the work was done by machines, the most notable being an automated crane that silently loaded boxes onto shipping pallets. As we ended the tour, another cardboard Tran bid us farewell and pointed us to the gift shop.

The visit to Huy Fong Foods was amazing. For one, it was fascinating seeing a real-life production facility. Since my job consists of sitting in an office all day, it was cool seeing people who actually make something for a living instead of just shuffling papers around. In addition to the facility itself, it was neat learning more about Tran’s story, which is at once remarkable and unremarkable.

It’s remarkable that a refugee like Tran could overcome numerous obstacles to become a gadjillionaire businessman. But Tran’s story is also unremarkable in the sense that it’s not that unique. The immigrant success story is nothing new. In fact, you probably know some examples yourself. That doesn’t diminish their achievements, but speaks to the beauty of America and what fuels its dynamism — the constant influx of talent, ambition, and hope that keeps the country fresh and inventive.

And that allows us to put more than just ketchup on our eggs.

P.s. If you want your very own tour of the sriracha factory, give Huy Fong Foods a call at (626) 286–8328. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the VIP treatment like we did.

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