Refugee’s Concoction a Sizzling Success
Without knowing it, you might be among the millions of Americans burned by David Tran. And if so, you probably liked it.
A diminutive, balding man who comes to work in coveralls, Tran is known to few beyond his family and 15 workers at his Rosemead hot sauce factory.
But his fiery red sriracha (sree-rah-chah) relish, packaged in a green-topped clear-plastic squeeze bottle that looks like it was meant to hold glue, has captured the hearts and minds of spicy-food fans from Fresno to France.
Tran sold about $7-million worth of hot sauce last year. That is way beyond what he expected when he started mashing peppers to make ends meet 17 years ago as a newly arrived Vietnamese refugee. “I thought I might make a thousand dollars a month, and I wouldn’t have to work for somebody else,” Tran said.
He has not advertised the sauce, which first appeared at a handful of Southern California Asian markets and on the tables of Vietnamese noodle shops. But enthusiasts--some of whom liken their first taste of the sauce to a gustatory epiphany--began to pass bottles on to friends. By word of (scorched) mouth, sriracha moved out of the Asian ethnic enclaves and spread like a California wildfire.
The garlicky concoction, thicker than Louisiana hot sauces, has only a tiny share of the hot sauce market, which generates an estimated $127 million in sales, according to the New York-based market research firm Packaged Facts. Its influence on American tastes, however, spreads far and wide.
Dino DeCario puts it on chicken wings at his Latrobe, Pa., bar, Dino’s Sports Lounge.
It’s the spice in spicy tuna rolls at countless sushi bars, and has broken the monotony of cafeteria meals for students at UC Berkeley as well as inmates at the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo.
Randy Yates of Ridgeland, Miss., slathers sriracha on crawfish tails at his restaurant and bar, Kalo’s Tavern. “It’s the best hot sauce I’ve ever had, and the only one we put out on the tables,” said Yates, who as a delta-born-and-bred chef knows his chiles.
Other brands of sriracha, a traditional Southeast Asian sauce named after a Thai seaside town, are sold in the U.S., but none has achieved the broad following of Tran’s version.
“I’m sort of astounded by it,” said New Mexico hot sauce expert David DeWitt of the seemingly accidental popularity of this sriracha. DeWitt, author of “The Hot Sauce Bible,” likens Tran’s success to “a grass-roots, voice-of-the-people kind of movement.”
Tran, 47, made his first hot sauce in Vietnam. His family members had planted chiles on land they had bought as an investment. Disappointed by the low market price for fresh chiles, Tran turned his crop into more profitable hot sauce.
The business was just one of several enterprises, including a market and a vacuum tube factory, run by the Trans in Vietnam.
He is the descendant of immigrants who went to Vietnam from Teochiu, China, in the 19th century. Teochiu Chinese prospered as merchants and industrialists in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. As thriving capitalists, however, many were targets of hostility when Communists won control of Vietnam in the 1970s.
Tran, who served as a major in the South Vietnamese army, fled the country with his family in 1978, landing first in Hong Kong before coming to the United States.
After a few months in Boston, Tran came to Los Angeles, where friends told him the growing Asian immigrant population might be a natural market for his sauce.
With some savings he managed to bring with him from Vietnam, Tran and two brothers-in-law went into business. They rented 2,500 feet of factory space in Los Angeles’ Chinatown for $700 a month, and bought a used 50-gallon electric mixer and a Chevrolet van.
Tran called the company Huy Fong, naming it after the Taiwanese freighter that carried him out of Vietnam.
Every morning, the men went to the Grand Central produce market in downtown Los Angeles to shop for the peppers they would mix and mash into sauce each day. Soon, they were buying all the jalapenos the market had to offer, and were driving their hot sauce-filled van to Asian groceries all over California.
Tran’s entry proved well-timed. American tastes have shifted dramatically toward spicy foods in the last two decades. Per-capita spice consumption grew from 1.9 pounds in 1974 to 3.1 pounds in 1993, according to Packaged Facts.
Consumption of red peppers in the early 1990s soared to almost three times the levels of the mid-1970s, the American Spice Trade Assn. has reported.
Today, Tran’s peppers are grown for him by a farm in Oxnard, and last year, he expanded his 10-year-old Rosemead plant by buying the shuttered Wham-O facility next door. Tran hopes to bring the factory back to life by churning out hot sauce where Frisbees, Hula Hoops and Silly String once came off the lines.
“I may be able to hire 100 people some day,” Tran said excitedly of the future he imagines if sales of sriracha and five other hot sauces he makes continue to climb.
That’s about the most grandiose prediction Tran makes about his business. Unlike some entrepreneurs, Tran talks about himself only when asked. He lives in a modestly comfortable neighborhood in Arcadia with his wife and two children, and insists that simplicity is as important to his life as growth.
“I’m very comfortable now, there’s not much pressure,” he said. Tran does not want to take his business public or try other ventures, explaining that his thinking is quite different from other businessmen. “Some think because they are successful in one business they can do anything,” Tran said. “For me, I just want to make hot sauce as good as possible.”
Tran’s success in many ways mirrors that of the royal family of hot sauce, the McIlhennys of Avery Island, La., and Tabasco.
Like Tran, the aristocratic McIlhennys lost nearly all they had in a war. After the Civil War, family members found themselves with little more than the pepper plants growing on their property and a natural mountain of salt at their Avery Island home.
The family pickled the peppers and packaged the sauce in empty French perfume bottles, which inspired the characteristic shape of today’s Tabasco bottles.
Like the dainty 2-ounce bottles that evoke Tabasco’s genteel origins, Tran’s injection-molded plastic sriracha containers help to define his sauce as a product of Los Angeles’ boisterous, multicultural industrial society.
Adorned with the strutting rooster that is both the company’s mascot and the symbol of Tran’s birth year in Chinese astrology, the squeeze bottles come in two sizes: big (17 oz.) and really big (28 oz.).
To capitalize on the cross-cultural appeal of chile peppers, the bottle is labeled in five languages. In English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese, consumers are told of the sauce’s virtues on hot dogs, pizza, spaghetti and chow mein. Sriracha’s suitability to kosher diets is plainly stated, as is the fact that its suspicious cardinal hue is the result of nature, not chemical engineering.
Perhaps most important, the Rosemead plant’s phone number is on the bottle, which helped sales spread across the country.
Charlene Rocchi Ward of Remo’s Italian Footers, a Gallipolis, Ohio, hot dog stand, said a friend brought a bottle back after a trip to California and suggested she try it. “I said, ‘This is great. When are you going to California again?’ ” When her friend said probably never, Ward phoned Huy Fong and ordered a case.
Sriracha is now a popular addition to her Tuscan grandfather’s special 70-year-old hot dog recipe, and Ward’s brother and other workers at the nearby West Virginia factories keep bottles in the employee lunchrooms. “They call it ‘red rooster sauce,’ ” Ward said.
Indeed, sriracha has succeeded despite the fact that many don’t know or care to use its name. It’s “the Chinese sauce” to customers at Dino’s Sports Lounge in Latrobe, while supermarket ads in Los Angeles Chinese-language newspapers refer to it as “the Vietnamese sauce.” At Kalo’s in Mississippi, it is known just as “that hot sauce,” according to Randy Yates.
“I just learned how to pronounce it,” said Yates, who first called Huy Fong to order the sauce two years ago. He discovered sriracha in an Atlanta restaurant while traveling with his friend John Currence, an Oxford, Miss., chef who also uses the sauce at City Grocery, his nationally known restaurant. Like other sriracha enthusiasts, Yates and Currence liked it so much after their first try that they copied the phone number from the bottle to order it.
This year, Tran will sell sriracha in 7-ounce bottles, labeled only in English as “The California Red.” He hopes the new bottles will end up on more restaurant tables since they won’t take up as much space.
The small bottles will also sell at retail for $1 or less, which Tran hopes will lure first-time users. The 17-ounce sriracha bottle sells for about $1.50 at Asian supermarkets in Los Angeles, and roughly twice that much at higher-end groceries like Bristol Farms.
Unlike the makers of Tabasco, who tout the fact that their sauce ages for years in oak barrels “like fine wine,” Tran boasts of low prices brought about by the increasing scale of his production. His sriracha is aged in plastic drums for six months.
Prices are about all Tran will tell you about his sauces. On some days, he can be found wielding a blowtorch, making his own machinery so competitors will not be able to learn his production methods by ordering the same equipment.
According to chile guru DeWitt, Tran’s fears are well-founded in the fiercely competitive hot sauce world. DeWitt said industrial spies have raided trash dumpsters at hot sauce plants, hoping to learn production secrets.
Tran believes that low prices are his best shield against competitors. Other sriracha brands sell for as much as $3 for a 7-ounce bottle.
But one popular cost-cutting option that he won’t consider, he said, is shifting production abroad.
Overseas expansion, especially in the rapidly growing markets of Asia, might seem like a natural step for an Asian hot sauce maker.
But Tran is deeply committed to making his sauce locally, to help enrich the country that gave him a fresh start.
“I’m Chinese, but when we were pushed out of Vietnam, China didn’t accept us, Taiwan didn’t accept us,” he said.
Looking toward the silent former Wham-O plant, Tran points out that Frisbees are now made in Mexico. He hopes that his hot sauce will bring work back to his neighborhood.
“I want to create jobs in the United States, in California, and here, in the San Gabriel Valley.”