It's Sriracha season again, let's go back and take the tour of the factory that makes the world's favorite hot sauce...
In the middle of the San Gabriel Valley...mostly know for it's outstanding Asian cuisine, Santa Anita Racetrack, and the Rose Bowl and parade...sits the tiny community of Irwindale, population 1,422, made up of mostly of members of five families.
Irwindale is pock-marked by giant pits used to extract gravel for concrete. As these pits give out, the city is trying to transform them into industrial lots and other commercial uses. It famously made a deal with football's Raiders owner, Al Davis, to build a stadium in one of them but it fell through with Davis taking the city's $10 million good faith fee.
It's also infamous for dealings that, from time-to-time, tend to send council members to jail for lengths of time.
Into this nine square mile of rock pits, factories, dumps, and a brewery, stepped David Tran. Tran also has a very colorful story.
He's a Chinese Vietnamese refugee that escaped that country and is a "boat person." The Boat People crammed into any vessel they could and set out to sea to escape the incoming Communist regime after the fall of South Vietnam in the Vietnam War.
With nothing but a recipe and determination, Tran started to make the hot sauce he made back in Vietnam and selling it to local Vietnames and Chinese restaurants here in the San Gabriel Valley.
It took off like wildfire and soon he was pumping out his famous Sriracha Rooster Hot Chili Sauce from a small factory in Rosemead that used to house famous hula hoop maker, Wham-O. When production outgrew that facility, the city of Irwindale made him an offer and, in 2010, he moved to a giant, new facility in their town.
Three years later, relations with the new city soured when about 60 complaints of offensive odor came in to city hall. The city promptly started actions to shut down the factory as a "public nuisance."
Threats to the highly popular sauce meant that this news spread world-wide. Reporters descended on the factory, noting that they really couldn't smell anything (note: I drove by the plant, which is a little over a mile from our house, several times and never smelled anything), and that almost all of the complaints came from 4 households with ties to a city councilman.
Lawsuits, inspections, and millions of dollars spent on air filtering equipment, and multiple offers of other jurisdictions that would be happy to have Tran and his hot sauce in their town, finally convinced Irwindale to back off but never admit they did anything wrong.
Tran is also one not to give in. He's a fighter with a sense of happy humor so, to prove the city wrong, he's opened up the mammoth Sriracha factory during what should be the throat-stinging, smelliest part of the year...the season when they grind the fresh jalapeño chiles...to show everybody just how strong, or not strong, the smell is.
So during the fall harvest and grinding season, anybody is welcome to come to David Tran's factory in Irwindale to experience this for themselve. We decided to go.
In a festive atmosphere, we don our hairnets (and beardnet for Tim), and set off. Here's our tour (it's self-guided):
Since Tim has a goatee, he also gets to wear a beardnet.
The building is massive. Expansion can also take place in this large warehouse, where pallets of hot sauce await shipment.
Trucks bring in a special hybrid of jalapeño peppers grown on one farm in Ventura County, and dump them in the hopper to begin the process. You can help yourself to a sample (see picture at top).
A conveyor takes the chiles into the factory.
The chiles are washed, inspected for debris, and ground up in this room.
Additions like salt, garlic, and vinegar are mixed in and ground up with the chiles, making them Sriracha sauce at this point.
The finished sauce is pumped into 50 gallon drums and stored in a warehouse for use in filling the bottles throughout the year.
This machine makes the plastic bottles that will be filled with the sauce.
After the bottles are manufactured, this machine fills them up and seals them.
Next comes the shipping department where the freshly filled bottles are boxed and palleted for shipment.
Upon exit, Tran has put up a banner facing the Irwindale City Hall.
The Rooster Room gift shop and free food samples await after the tour.
We also get a free cone of soft serve Sriracha ice cream.
Lastly, we pick up a free t-shirt and bottle of Sriracha sauce to take home.
So, does it pass the smell test? Between the three of us and several people we asked, outside the plant we could not smell anything. The nearby Miller Brewery and a garbage facility produces much more aroma. Inside, a very faint smell of garlic, and in the grinding room, we could feel it in our throats but that room was well insulated from the rest of the building and the outside.
Tours are conducted during harvest and grinding season, according to the city the smelliest time of the year, to make sure visitors get the full effect. That runs August through November. No tours are given if it's raining.
Contact Huy Fong at (626) 286-8328 to make arrangements for the free tour.
Copyright 2014 - Darryl Musick
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