David Tran once carefully guarded the secrets of Sriracha hot sauce.
The famously reclusive CEO never advertised, granted few interviews and even designed his own machines, taking up a blowtorch to prevent his competitors from duplicating his methods.
But after smell complaints at the Irwindale factory last year sparked months of sustained media coverage, Tran and his 34-year-old company are trying to get comfortable in the spotlight -- and use the attention to their advantage.
On Friday, Huy Fong Foods invited the public to the factory for tours and tastings as a way of moving on from the controversy. More than 2,000 people are expected to attend this weekend’s events at the factory that the city of Irwindale had once declared a public nuisance.
The weekend event marks the beginning of its pepper-grinding season.
A party-like atmosphere prevailed Friday in a parking lot where security guards once knocked on the window of any car that drove up. Cheerful bunches of red, green and white balloons bobbed in the breeze, and Tran himself greeted each guest at the door, shaking hands and mugging for Instagrams next to a cardboard cutout of himself in a tuxedo. In his pocket, his iPhone rang constantly.
At the registration table, employees checked names on a list as a speaker blasted a playlist of Sriracha-inspired rap songs. Every visitor got a brochure, a gauzy red hairnet and a ticket entitling the bearer to a T-shirt and 9-ounce bottle of Sriracha hot sauce.
Tours ended with tastings of Sriracha caramels, popcorn and ice cream. The new company store, the Rooster Room, was a particularly popular attraction.
“They have underwear!” said one woman, rushing inside.
It seems the smell controversy has only served to multiply the sauce’s popularity -- a Google Trends graph measuring the search use of the word “Sriracha” looks like a hockey stick on its side. This year, more than 1,700 people attended the plant’s daily tours – more than the entire population of the city of Irwindale.
Beth Mikah of La Verne invited all of the women in her hiking club. She’s already toured the factory once, but she never got to see the peppers in action. She surged ahead of the group when the first truck of peppers pulled up to the back of the plant, watching ardently as a shower of jalapenos tumbled onto the conveyor belt.
“Oh my, look at this,” Mikah said. “This is what we’re here to see. This is amazing!”
Melissa Armitage, 35, and Andrew Coates, 39, made the drive from Orange County for the tour.
“We came to show everyone that the smell doesn’t burn your throat,"Coates said.
For a company that has launched three culinary festivals, a documentary and several cookbooks, Huy Fong Foods is still a small company of about 80 full-time employees. None of them are public relations specialists or event planners.
But Tran recognizes the favorable public opinion could armor the company against future crackdowns. He still fears interference from the city, and he chafes under the new state health regulations that require him to hold his sauce for 35 days before shipping.
The infamous “NO TEAR GAS MADE HERE” banner, which was Tran’s defiant response to a judge’s ruling last year, is still flying. But it faces away from the street, tacked to the back of the security guard building.
“For 34 years, we have never had any kind of grand opening event. But people asked for this, so we’re doing it,” Tran said.
Tran seems amused by all of the attention, and mostly lets his fans do whatever they want with his brand. Tour groups kept asking to buy souvenirs, so he opened a store. He appears in the Sriracha rap music videos, offers the cookbooks in his store and allows documentarians into his life.
His company doesn’t make money on any of this, Tran said – the company doesn’t charge for licensing.
“Let them make money. I will never make T-shirts,” Tran said. “Let everyone make some money off of it."
The only business he’s interested in, Tran said, is hot sauce.