The story of how one hot sauce, Huy Fong Sriracha, got so hot

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Marco Werman: So I've got a bottle in my fridge, we've got one here at work, you may have one, the clear plastic bottle, red sauce, a green needle-nose cap, and a rooster on the front - a staple at any Vietnamese restaurant and popular all over the world. sriracha it's called. I've long noticed from the label that this stuff comes from Rosemead, California, just outside of LA, so I've always wanted to hear the backstory. Lucky for us Roberto Ferdman has written about sriracha for the online news site Quartz.

Roberto Ferdman: sriracha is not the name of the brand. Huy Fong is the name of the company and they make a version of sriracha which is kind of the equivalent of saying like barbecue sauce in Vietnam. It's basically a type of sauce that's used to put in pho. However, David Tran, who is the founder of Huy Fong, made his own version that's come to be known as sriracha. So in the US, sriracha means pretty much one thing and it's Huy Fong Sriracha.

Werman: Right. And if you go to Vietnam, generally speaking, you would find some kind of hot sauce to put in your pho. That was the market that Tran was trying to approach, right?

Ferdman: That's very true, yes. So Tran is originally from Vietnam, although his family is from China originally. He took a boat to Boston in 1979 and eventually made his way down to Los Angeles where he founded Huy Fong in 1980. When he started making sriracha it was basically an attempt to bring this sauce that he liked so much from home to the US and not just to himself, but also to the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles.

Werman: There's a rooster on the bottle and Huy Fong itself, the name of the company, they're both significant to David Tran, right?

Ferdman: Huy Fong is the name of the freighter that David Tran took from Vietnam to Boston in 1979. And then the rooster is his astrological sign. So there's a significance to both of those. And then you'll notice that the bottle looks kind of like the chilli peppers that they use. They use red jalapenos that have green stems kind of like the green cap. The body of the pepper red, kind of like the sriracha bottle is red.

Werman: And the red Jalapeno that David Tran uses for this hot sauce, this very recognizable hot sauce, that seems to be what sets this sauce apart from everything else, that these are fresh red jalapenos.

Ferdman: Fresh is actually the right word. People don't generally know a whole lot about how hot sauces are made, I think that's a fair assumption, but most are made with dried chillies and it just makes production a lot easier. Huy Fong rather makes their sriracha using fresh chillies. It means that they have to bottle the peppers or process them within a day of harvesting or picking them. So their factory needs to be very near where they harvest their peppers and it has actually played a significant role in the growth and really the cap on the company's growth.

Werman: Well, it hasn't impeded the growth by any means doing this because I gather that last year, David Tran sold twenty million bottles of sriracha and he's never advertised this product. Why not? I mean you spoke with him. Why doesn't he advertise?

Ferdman: Those two are actually pretty closely tied together, the fact they use fresh chillies and the fact that they've never advertised. David told me that they've grown in the double digits since 1980 annually. Griffin Hammond, who is a documentarian making a documentary about sriracha at the moment, told me that David said to him that the number is something like twenty percent per year. That number, however, could presumably be higher because since they rely on using fresh chillies, they can't make bottles of sriracha unless they have enough chillies and they haven't been able to produce enough chillies to meet demand. There's also been more demand for it than supply. That's why they can't advertise. If you were to advertise he would basically tempt more people into wanting to buy sriracha and upset a bunch of people who wouldn't be able to get the product because there simply isn't enough of it.

Werman: Is this an accident? Is he an unwitting kind of very smart businessman? Or is he just kind of drifting through this whole thing? "I just wanna make hot sauce" kind of attitude?

Ferdman: It's something of both. Definitely it seems, from having spoken to David, that the main driver of his enthusiasm about the company and his continued involvement in it is just his love for the sauce and his love for making it. He's been approached many times to sell the company, has not budged. There's something really endearing about it and I think that it's helped brew this kind of cult culture behind it.

Werman: Are you a fan of sriracha, Roberto? Or are you just writing about it?

Ferdman: I use sriracha pretty much every day for breakfast. I love sriracha with eggs.

Werman: Roberto Ferdman, journalist and sriracha connoisseur. He recently profiled the creator of Huy Fong Sriracha Hot Sauce for the online news site Quartz. Roberto, great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Ferdman: Great speaking with you too. Thank you for having me.

Werman: So I like a dollop of sriracha on a peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich fried in butter. No, that's not weird and, yes, it's really good. So how do you use your sriracha? Tell us at PRI.org or tweet us at PRItheworld.

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