Huy Fong Sriracha: How Vision, Trust and Loyalty Combine To Make One of the World’s Best-Loved Sauces
By Craig Underwood
The 1980s were difficult times for agriculture. The markets were over-supplied, prices were low, and many farmers carried debt that was unmanageable. It was no different for Underwood Ranches. By the end of the decade, our lender was forcing us to restructure. Lima beans, broccoli, cannery tomatoes and bell peppers were staples of our contract growing program. Fresh vegetable commodities were volatile and generally unprofitable. Our search for niche markets and a more solid base led to a produce stand in Somis and specialty baby vegetables.
In 1988, I wrote a letter to Huy Fong Foods in Rosemead. A friend had told me that they were a small chile processor who might be interested in having us grow jalapeno peppers. We had grown some acreage for La Victoria, but that had not led to a long-term contract. David Tran, the owner of Huy Fong, wrote back and suggested that they could possibly use 500 tons.
David was a Chinese immigrant who left Vietnam with what savings he had on the ship Huy Fong, following the North Vietnamese takeover of the South. The assets of most of the Chinese business community were confiscated and the climate for local Chinese was not favorable. Boston was his first stop, but the cold weather convinced him that Los Angeles should be his ultimate destination. With his experience growing spicy peppers and making fresh hot sauce, he started buying peppers on the L.A. market and making sriracha sauce in a 2,500-squarefoot building and distributing to restaurants out of his van.
When I met David, he had just moved into a large building in Rosemead. His jalapeno supplier at the time sourced product from various growers in Oxnard. His reaction to our connection with David was a strong suggestion that we would be a very unreliable supplier. Following our first year’s deliveries, we soon became their sole supplier of jalapenos. It is a relationship that developed based on honesty and trust.
Donna Lam, married to David’s brother-in-law, was my first contact and became a longtime friend of 25 years. She helped us understand the needs of the company, which haven’t changed much over the years. David wants peppers as fresh as possible, undamaged, free of dirt and leaves, no stems, very spicy (a pepper taster decides whether new varieties are hot enough) and a steady supply that will meet his customers’ needs.
Many chile processors have shifted their production to Mexico and South America because the growing and harvesting is cheaper. David says the few experiences that he had with Mexico proved to be unsatisfactory due to poor quality, lack of freshness, cost and unreliability. If the price was higher in Mexico, the contract for delivery to the United States meant nothing. As the needs for Huy Fong grew, the need for harvesting labor and the cost put a strain on the labor pool. Beginning about eight years ago, Jim Roberts, the operating manager for Underwood Ranches, started developing a growing and harvesting system that has made us the low-cost producer, far less expensive than Mexico. It has enabled us to grow and continue to expand in California. David works tirelessly to drive down costs so he can supply his product as cheaply as possible.
It is a rare person I meet today who is not familiar with the bottle of red sauce with green cap and rooster on it. It has been making the news. A creamy sriracha is now available at Subway; it made the final three of a Lay’s potato chip new flavor contest, although it is unclear whether the sriracha was from Huy Fong or if sriracha was used because it has become so popular.
The Huy Fong brand has been featured on the internet, NPR, many television cooking shows and there was a recent article about Huy Fong in Business Week. It has been called “tiger’s blood” by Charlie Sheen, the new American ketchup, “rooster sauce” and “cock sauce.” All despite having no advertising/marketing budget—their website was last updated in 2004.
Over the years the sauce has been the topic of cookbooks. It was Bon Appetit’s ingredient of the year in 2010. There are also product novelties created by Mathew Inman, creator of the comic strip The Oatmeal, such as popcorn, lip balm and underpants. Hand-painted stiletto heels, lollipops and boxers are also available.
The popularity and growth of the Huy Fong products has led to the opening of a 655,000-square-foot processing and storage facility in Irwindale. It will be even more efficient and cost-effective than the previous building. It is a state-of-the-art dream. As David proudly showed us around, he pointed out that it is our responsibility to fill it to its capacity of 100,000 tons. After 25 years of growing for Huy Fong, this year we will produce 48,000 tons on 1,700 acres in KernCounty and VenturaCounty. It takes all year to prepare the equipment, plant the seed in the greenhouse, transplant from April to July and harvest from July to November. Every year we test over 50 varieties looking for the perfect pepper that will harvest easily, produce a lot, process well and is flavorful and hot.
I don’t believe there is another relationship in the industry that shares so much trust between grower and processor. I have attended the weddings of his son and daughter. David’s son William and sonin-law Adam are now involved in the business.
The sad part about the move to Irwindale is that there don’t appear to be the wonderful Chinese restaurants where we have shared so many lunches talking about chiles, David’s passion.
Craig Underwood is a fourth-generation Ventura County farmer involved in numerous civic and agricultural leadership roles locally and beyond. Underwood Family Farms is 150 acres and retails and sells direct. Underwood Ranches is 2,400 acres and ships wholesale as well as growing for Huy Fong Foods.