Sriracha factory feeling heat from its neighbors


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    Sriracha bottles awaiting to be packaged in boxes for shipment

    - Davey Kim/Marketplace

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    David Tran, founder of Huy Fong foods. 

    - Davey Kim/Marketplace

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    Red chili pepper about to be cleaned, rinsed, ashed and grounded.

    - Davey Kim/Marketplace

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    Chili mixture stored in blue vats

    - Davey Kim/Marketplace

David Tran, the man behind Sriracha hot sauce, escaped from Vietnam to LA about 30 years ago. He began making his hot sauce in a bucket and delivered it in a blue Chevy van.

For Tran, his guiding principle has always been to "make the rich man’s quality, (at) the poor man’s price."

Last year, Tran sold 20 million bottles of Sriracha. Lately, his private company grown about 10% a year. Many investors have taken notice and have come with loads of cash to buy Sriracha. But Tran says some investors wanted to dilute the recipe.

“(They) told me, 'Your hot sauce is too spicy for the Americans.' So if I make it more mild, I can sell more. But for us, that's not spicy enough,” says Tran.

Sriracha has gained a cult following, and you’ll now find Sriracha in Lay’s potato chips and Subway sandwiches. So Tran’s never needed to spend a cent on advertising or public relations.

But lately, he’s had a PR mess. The hot sauce’s unique burn has been drifting out of the factory and into the surrounding neighborhood of Irwindale, CA - where the hot sauce is made.

Fred Galante, who serves as city attorney, says, "There was one resident that had a birthday party for her son and the birthday party had to move indoors because the smells were so strong."

Tran actually received complaints about the smell earlier last year, so he installed a carbon filtration system. But back then, the factory was churning out bottles at just 10% capacity.

“This year they ramped up to approximately 40% of capacity. It’s clear that the filtration they installed last year is completely ineffective,” Galante says.

Associate Professor Adam Zimmerman at Loyola Law School says that shutdown cases like usually depend on the complicated world of nuisance law.

“The question that’s usually raised is, ‘What does it mean to unreasonably interfere with someone else’s property?'," says Zimmerman.

But this Tuesday, an LA court did “reasonably infer” that the odor appears to be a public nuisance. For now, a judge ruled that the factory must partially shut down. And what this means for next year’s supply of Sriracha remains unclear.

About the author

Davey Kim is a freelance reporter and producer based in Los Angeles. Kim currently interns for Marketplace and The Dinner Party Download. Kim's work has been aired on KPCC and The World.

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