Sriracha, a spicy chili sauce, has become the most popular flavor ingredient of both professional chefs as well as home cooks. However the citizens of Irwindale, the site of the company’s newest and largest manufacturing plant, are complaining that the smell from the factory makes life unbearable.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge rejected the lawsuit on Oct. 31 by the city of Irwindale. They wanted the company to cease operations at the Huy Fong Foods Irwindale factory until the company can reduce the pungent smell of pepper and garlic fumes emanating from the plant.
"You're asking for a very radical order on 24-hour notice," Judge O'Brien told attorney June Ailin, representing the city. A Nov. 22 hearing was scheduled on a preliminary injunction.
The sprawling 650,000-square-foot factory processes some 100 million pounds of peppers a year into Sriracha (pronounced "sree-YAH-chah) and two other popular Asian food sauces for the past two years.
David Tran, the owner of the company, fled Vietnam after the war and has been perfecting the recipe for the hot sauce for more than 30 years. He started mixing it in barrels and sold it to the Los Angeles Asian community. The company is named after the Taiwanese freighter that brought his family out of Vietnam.
The problem is that like many food factories the odor of the product is released through vents into the air. While the company has tried to comply with the city by adding multiple layers of filters, people still are complaining of the pungent oils from chili peppers and garlic. Air pollution inspectors found the company in compliance. Yet citizins still complained the odor gives them headaches, burns their throat and makes their eyes water.
"It's like having a plate of chili peppers shoved right in your face," said Ruby Sanchez, who lives almost directly across the street from the plant.
The factory washes and roasts jalapeno peppers grown in central California and delivered by as many as 40 trucks a day during the fall harvest. Garlic and several other ingredients are added to make the distinctive taste that has made this sauce so popular. The odor is only there for about three months, during the California jalapeno pepper harvest season, which stretches from August to about the end of October or first week of November. The company makes about 200,000 bottles of Sriracha each day during this high production period.
"This is the time, as they are crushing the chilis and mixing them with the other ingredients, that the odors really come out," said City Attorney Frank Galante, adding Irwindale officials have gotten numerous complaints.
Huy Fong executives said they were cooperating with the city to reduce the smell, but balked at the city's suggestion of putting in a new, $600,000 filtration system that may not be necessary.
Sriracha's little plastic squeeze bottles with their distinctive green caps can be found in restaurants and home pantries around the world. The rooster on the bottle is Tran’s astrological sign. He says the secret to the sauce is the freshness of the spicy red jalapeno peppers grown on a farm just 70 miles away.
Craig Underwood owns the farm and has worked for Tran for 25 years. They started with 50 acres of peppers and next year they plan to plant 4,000 acres.
"From the time they are picked, to the time they're ground, it's about six hours, and that's important to David," said Underwood. "He wants it fresh, he wants them red, he wants them spicy and he wants them tasty."
The sauce has become so popular that on October 27 Los Angeles hosted the first ever Sriracha festival. There was Sriracha ice cream, Sriracha apples and even Sriracha cocktails. This hot sauce has its own cookbook and has even been named "ingredient of the year" by Bon Appetit Magazine.
There's a lot at stake in the lawsuit. Last year Sriracha sold $60 million worth of sauce and revenue is growing 20 percent each year.