How Sriracha Became a Political Prop

It’s an immigrant-owned, widely popular product facing regulation from big, small-town government.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
April 23, 2014, 9:55 a.m.

Ir­windale, Cal­if., has had enough of Sri­r­acha. Amer­ic­ans con­sumers are ob­sessed with it. And politi­cians are sens­ing an op­por­tun­ity.

Earli­er this month, the Ir­windale City Coun­cil de­clared Huy Fong Foods, the com­pany that man­u­fac­tures the gar­licky hot sauce, a pub­lic nuis­ance (Cla­ri­fic­a­tion: The city tent­at­ively de­clared the fact­ory a pub­lic nuis­ance in a un­an­im­ous de­cision two weeks ago. It will vote again to fi­nal­ize the meas­ure in two weeks). As much as liv­ing next to a bakery can be won­der­ful, liv­ing next to a hot-sauce fact­ory has proven to be grat­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the coun­cil res­ol­u­tion, neigh­bors have com­plained about “nosebleeds, swollen glands, a burn­ing sen­sa­tion of the throat and eyes, and head­aches, among oth­er symp­toms.”

If the de­clar­a­tion is fi­nal­ized, Huy Fong has un­til Ju­ly 22 to at­ten­u­ate the odor. If it doesn’t, the city can in­ter­vene and will bill Huy Fong the costs via a li­en on its prop­erty. Rather than reen­gin­eer pro­duc­tion, own­er Dav­id Tran tells the Los Angeles Times he’s think­ing of mov­ing the fact­ory.

That news quickly hit the ears of politi­cians. And it’s easy to see why.

For one, Sri­r­acha is an Amer­ic­an dream story. Dav­id Tran, Huy Fong’s founder, is an im­mig­rant. His vis­ion, he told our sis­ter site Quartz, is “to make enough fresh chili sauce so that every­one who wants Huy Fong can have it. Noth­ing more.” He makes some $60 mil­lion worth of it every year.

It’s also an im­mensely pop­u­lar, nearly cult-wor­shiped brand to be as­so­ci­ated with. When the fact­ory tem­por­ar­ily shut down in Decem­ber 2013 after a court or­der, Sri­r­acha fans pan­icked. Homemade Sri­r­acha re­cipes pro­lif­er­ated. Head­lines de­clared “The Days of a Sri­r­acha Black Mar­ket Are Ap­proach­ing,” and offered “How to sur­vive the im­pend­ing Sri­r­acha short­age” guides.

That, com­bined with the nar­rat­ive of the little guy vs. big gov­ern­ment, has proven to be pure polit­ic­al cat­nip, es­pe­cially for Re­pub­lic­ans. Ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters, “the com­pany says it has more than two dozen in­vit­a­tions from of­fi­cials across the coun­try, sev­er­al in Texas.”

That in­cludes one from Rep. Tony Carde­n­as, D-Cal­if., who toured the Huy Fong fact­ory in an at­tempt to per­suade the com­pany to re­lo­cate to his dis­trict in the San Fernando Val­ley. An­oth­er came from Texas state Rep. Jason Vil­lal­ba, who wrote Tran, “You have worked too hard and have helped too many people to let gov­ern­ment bur­eau­crats shut down your thriv­ing busi­ness.”

The Cali­for­nia GOP has already made Sri­r­acha in­to a talk­ing point, with the Los Angeles chapter un­an­im­ously passing a res­ol­u­tion of solid­ar­ity with Huy Fong, and the chapter’s chair­man telling Fox News that Tran is “ba­sic­ally the story of Amer­ica.”

Here’s the text of their res­ol­u­tion:

Be it re­solved that the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Los Angeles County urges the City Coun­cil of Ir­windale to take such ac­tions as ne­ces­sary to keep Huy Fong Foods in Los Angeles County and,

There­fore, be it re­solved this 19th Day of April, 2014 that the Re­pub­lic­an Party stands with Sri­r­acha and sup­ports Huy Fong Foods as it con­tin­ues to grow, cre­ate jobs, and to bol­ster the loc­al eco­nomy.

The 2013 crisis was aver­ted, but the epis­ode surely only el­ev­ated the Sri­r­acha brand in the na­tion­al con­scious­ness. The in­vest­ig­at­ive news web­site Cal­Watch­dog.com goes so far as to call the Sri­r­acha story “an elec­tion-year gift” for state Re­pub­lic­ans look­ing to ap­peal to Asi­an voters. Neel Kashkari, a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for gov­ernor, has a pe­ti­tion on his web­site to “tell Sri­r­acha’s lead­ers that we stand with them against big gov­ern­ment.”

In all, it’s a story about the little guy against the big, mean, (loc­al) gov­ern­ment. It’s also a chance for politi­cians to align them­selves with a pop­u­lar minor­ity-owned brand. It’s also a chance to lure a fact­ory that em­ploys 70 full-time work­ers in­to a dis­trict. In oth­er words, a talk­ing point with no down­side. Well, that is, un­til those politi­cians’ con­stitu­ents start com­plain­ing about the smell.

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