Huy Fong Foods Sriracha has become a condiment king over the last 30 years, and Illinois filmmaker Griffin Hammond wants to make sure everyone knows why.
Hammond, 28, is making a 30-minute short documentary devoted to the fiery sauce and Huy Fong Foods creator David Tran, a major in the South Vietnamese army who fled to the U.S. and started making the stuff in buckets in the 1980s.
Hammond spoke with The Times for an inside look at the making of the film:
Who is Griffin Hammond?
I’m a video producer. I work for YouTube. I’m part of a division of YouTube called Next Lab and I run a Youtube channel called Indie Mogul. So week in week out I’m just producing educational content for our over 500,000 subscribers. And I do a lot of freelance video, and right now I’m working on this film [Sriracha documentary]. It’s kind of a personal project for me. I want to be at film festivals next year sharing a good story and Sriracha is something I’m passionate about. There are great stories around it but as much fandom as there is surrounding it, I don’t think poeole know about Huy Fong Foods.
When and how did your love and obsession with Sriracha start?
I’m trying to pinpoint that exactly. I had a call with a PR person at Noodles and Company. It’s a chain in the Midwest that does just noodles. They are checking for me to see how long they have had Sriracha on the table but it was probably nine years ago that I started eating it and probably because they had it at Noodles and Company. Ever since I picked it up, I’ve been putting it on most of my meals. I like it on my mac and cheese. I like turning it orange. I know it goes great on so many things. It’s hot, but it has so much flavor. Has fresh jalapenos, the flavor really shines.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the documentary?
I really want to show people where it comes from. How it is made. But also share a lot of stories about passionate people who love Sriracha and even other brands. I just kind of want to bring that whole world to audiences. Let them know everything surrounding this hot sauce. I think most people would be interested. They just look at the bottle and love it, but there is so much there to learn. My goal is to get this into the film festivals.
What can people expect to see (sales, states etc)?
David Tran and his son in law, Adam Holiday, who manages production at their new facility. I have an insider look at how it’s made. I love that show “How It’s Made.” I want to spend the first couple minutes of the doc just showing you how they get from fresh red jalapenos grown in California - just one farm that makes them - how it gets from there to crushing them up, cleaning them off, bottling them. But then show you how popular it is, especially for people not familiar with it. And I’m even considering going to Thailand to show the city Sriracha, where this style of sauce is from. This is the pop American brand, and it’s definitely earned its place but it’s not the same as several of the Thai brands. There is a whole world of Sriracha, that I’d like to touch on as much as I can.
Biggest challenges faced when filming?
Mostly it’s just that I’m a small crew. It’s mostly me doing the production and some friends helping me when I need help. So I’m spending just as much time producing the film as I am directing. I have to spend a lot of time just emailing and getting permissions from people, all the travel. Gathering those stories. The thing that amazes me is no one else has told this yet. There are a lot of obstacles in doc film making, but there’s not as many as there could be because no one has told this yet, and I get to be a pioneer here.
How is the documentary being funded?
Right now it’s coming out of pocket, but what I’m doing this week, I’m editing my Kickstarter video. I’m asking for $5,000 which will help me cover. I’ve spent $2,000 so far. I already have all the gear for this. I really just want to recover some of my travel costs. I know there will be more this summer and film festival submission fees. My primary reward is for $5 you’ll get to see the film, way before most other people. Film festival deadlines are this September and October, and festivals don’t start until January to March, but Kickstarter backers get to see it really early and their name in the credits. I want to definitely thank everyone who donates just a little bit.
Who is the biggest Sriracha fan you’ve encountered?
Randy Clemens. There are probably more rabid fans out there, but he’s the author of “The Sriracha Cookbook.” He was the first person I talked to just to even see if I should make a film. He kind of knows everything. He’s become an expert in researching his two cookbooks now and I knew he would have some answers for me, he had contact info for me. I wanted to make sure no one else was making a film right now and he assured me no one was. He’s a great guy and he kind of guided me around L.A. He’s a big fan and also a big fan of other versions, some of the Thai brands. The last day I was in L.A., I got up early and went to Randy’s house and he had set up a tasting. We had about eight-10 srirachas. The first thing in my stomach. I hadn’t even had breakfast yet, we were just tasting Sriracha. They all have the commonality of garlic and hot peppers, but they are all very different in their texture and their flavor.
Most interesting fact you’ve learned?
For me, probably two things that come to mind. One is that people think it’s a pretty exotic sauce, like it comes from Vietnam or Thailand, but it’s made in California. The peppers are also grown right there an hour away and I just think it’s incredible that this one farm grows all the peppers for them. They [Huy Fong Foods] don’t want to buy it from someone else. This farmer Craig Underwood, every time they [Huy Fong Foods] want to expand, he’s had to buy more farmland. So he’s grown with them. They have this great 25-year relationship of tweaking the peppers to make David Tran happy. Also, their new facility, it’s massive. They make everything in house. They are printing the bottles there. They have those big plastic barrels for the peppers. David was telling me they cost $50 a piece if you go out and buy them and they keep 100,000 of them. So they actually make these barrels in house because it would be expensive to buy them. And David Tran personally designed all this equipment, just because there is really only one client for this kind of equipment; him. I have this shot where it starts below the barrels and it raises up and you can just see how massive this facility is. Hundreds of thousands of barrels just going off into the horizon.
I didn’t know what to expect. If they were going to be secretive or welcome me, but they were very welcoming and nice people. Only thing I was afraid of that came true when I got there, is that the jalapeno harvest only happens once a year. So I have all this great footage of the bottling, but not of the harvest yet. Going to go back at the end of August to capture it.
Hammond also revealed a couple fun facts about the operation:
This year Underwood Ranches plans to grow about 50,000 tons of red jalapeño peppers for Huy Fong Foods. On 1,750 acres; that’ll require 2,500 semi-loads of chiles, which Huy Fong will process at over 1 ton per minute, and store this “chile mash” in 500-pound drums — 200,000 of them.
Then, they bottle 3,000 per hour–24 hours a day, six days per week. At least 70,000 bottles of Sriracha daily.
Hammond expects the film to hit audiences in L.A. and possibly New York and Texas sometime next spring. He also plans for the film to be distributed on YouTube, Netflix and iTunes.
“Only thing that keeps amazing me, is it’s so great knowing that there is already an audience for the film, while I’m still working on it,” said Hammond. " A lot of press has been interested in this, and I just keep thinking, no one would cover this story if it was just ‘Illinois filmmaker begins short documentary.’ People just get so excited when I tell them what I’m doing."