Panic spread amongst lovers of the Huy Fong Foods-made Sriracha hot sauce when residents near the Southern California factory tried to shut down production. They claimed that hot sauce fumes were causing headaches, watery eyes and burning throats.
The city of Irwindale, the Los Angeles suburb where the factory is located, filed suit last Monday asking the court for a temporary restraining order shuttering the plant until air quality is improved.
“If the city shuts us down, the price of Sriracha will jump a lot,” Huy Fong Foods founder and CEO David Tran told the Los Angeles Times ahead of last week’s hearing.
“Oh god, no! This is the end of the world,” Tampa mixologist and self-professed Sriracha fiend Kamran Mir said of his reaction to the news. “I hate to call it panic because this really is a first world problem.”
Mir immediately drove to the downtown Tampa Asian supermarket, Oceanic, and found just eight large bottles on the shelf. He posted a photo of the shelf with the comment, “People are not fucking around with a potential Srirachapocalypse on the horizon.” He purchased four of the eight bottles after navigating a personal crisis of conscience.
“As much as I wanted all the Sriracha, I didn’t want to deprive anyone else of it,” he said. “I swear to god, I stood in the aisle at Oceanic and asked myself, how many bottles can I buy and still feel like a good person. It was a philosophical debate. I guess that’s hot sauce egalitarianism.”
The Associated Press reported late last week that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien had denied the request for a temporary restraining order.
After the hearing, a spokesperson for Huy Fong Foods sent this statement to Creative Loafing:
“Huy Fong Foods is grateful with yesterday’s ruling denying the preliminary restraining order sought by the City of Irwindale. The Company has worked with the City and other governmental agencies in this matter and will continue to do so. The Company has taken recent steps to enhance its filtration system and is continuing to be proactive and monitor the situation. Huy Fong Foods is proud to be a member of the Irwindale community, and growing with it. Huy Fong would also like to sincerely thank all its supporters especially during this period.”
Another hearing is scheduled for Fri., Nov. 22. Tran has rejected the city’s suggestion that he install a $600,000 filtration system, but the company is investigating other options.
“I’ve been paying attention to the story and they’re not going to shut the plant down tomorrow or anything,” Mir said. “All I can think is what kind of nut job would complain about their neighborhood smelling like Sriracha?”
According to the Los Angeles Times, initial air quality reports following the suit found no detectable odor 20 feet from the exhaust system. A “mild chili odor in the factory’s lobby” was rated one on a scale of one to 10.
For Mir, his love affair with Sriracha started as a USF college student lunching at Tampa’s Trang Viet restaurant.
“It was always there on the table,” Mir said. “Now I use it three to five days a week. I have a bottle on my desk at work [the sauce requires no refrigeration], a bottle at home. I put it on Asian food, pizza, eggs, rice.”
Known as “rooster sauce,” Huy Fong’s Sriracha is made with red chilies and garlic, traditionally served with Vietnamese and Thai food. Tran, who named his company after the Huy Fong freighter on which he traveled from Vietnam to America, started making the sauce in a humble Chinatown office in the early 1980s. All raw materials are now processed at the Irwindale plant, including jalapeño hybrid peppers (more akin to the Fresno pepper) from nearby Underwood Farms.
The condiment has become one of the best-selling in the world, garnering parodies from The Simpsons and even its own limited-edition flavor of Lays chips. In a recent Thrillist article, Sriracha was ranked as the number one hot sauce in “the entire universe.” Bloomberg Businessweek wrote recently of Huy Fong Foods’ success with the sauce, noting that in 2012 alone, over 20 million bottles were sold. Rooster sauce fever even spread to outer space when NASA’s food science division began sending Sriracha into orbit a decade ago, in an effort to keep astronauts’ taste buds up to speed.
The prospective shortage prompted a widespread foodie scare, prompting coverage everywhere from the Washington Post to Slate. The website Serious Eats ran recipes for make-your-own Sriracha and taste-tested knock-offs of Huy Fong’s original with names like Sriraja Panich and Shark Brand. Atlantic Wire warned of Sriracha black marketing, and asked this rhetorical question: “The nation now faces a Sophie’s choice: is the health of 30-or-so Irwindaliens more important than the exquisite burn of the rooster sauce?”
Meanwhile in Tampa, Mir and other Sriracha-loving locals can douse dishes without fear. The supply of spicy sauce is out of the hot seat — for now.