The entrepreneur who popularized Sriracha hot sauce in the US has spoken out in a rare interview after being dubbed America’s only hot sauce billionaire.
David Tran, 77, founded Huy Fong Foods in Southern California after fleeing Vietnam with his wife and son in 1978, with his savings of $20,000 worth of gold hidden in cans of condensed milk.
He is the sole owner of Huy Fong, which was recently valued at $1 billion by research firm IBISWorld, based on estimated revenue of $131 million in 2020.
Despite his wealth, Tran stubbornly remains focused on the quality of his Sriracha, the much-loved product adorned with a rooster decal, for the year of his birth in the Chinese zodiac.
“I want to continue to make a good quality product, like spice up the hot sauce… and not think about making more profit,” he said Forbes in a recent profile.
David Tran, 77, founded Huy Fong Foods in Southern California after fleeing Vietnam with his wife and son in 1978, with his savings hidden in cans of condensed milk
The peppers are unloaded from a truck at the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale
“I could use cheaper ingredients or promote my products to make more money,” Tran added. “But no, my goal is always to try to make a rich man’s hot sauce for a poor man’s price.”
Tran was born in 1945 in the Vietnamese city of Soc Trang, then under French colonial rule, according to a 2013 oral history for UC Irvine’s Vietnamese American Oral History Project.
He moved to Saigon at the age of 16, where he worked in his brother’s shop selling chemical products, until he was drafted into the South Vietnamese army at the height of the Vietnam War.
He served five years, never saw combat but worked mainly as a cook, until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Married by then and with a child on the way, he and his brother took up the business of growing chili peppers and came up with the idea of turning them into a sauce to take advantage of wild price swings in the price of whole chilis.
But in 1978, the communist government began pressuring Vietnamese of Chinese descent to leave the country. Tran, whose ancestors were Cantonese, fled to Hong Kong.
When Huy Fong Foods founder David Tran immigrated to the US from Vietnam, he named the company after the ship that carried him over
Stocks are stored at the 650,000-square-foot Huy Fong Foods Sriracha hot chili sauce factory in Irwindale, California
The Huy Fong factory can produce 18,000 bottles of Sriracha per hour
Bottles of Sriracha chili sauce are displayed on shelves in a file photo
In January 1980, Tran, his wife and son moved to Los Angeles, and founded Huy Fong Foods, named after the freighter that brought them to America.
Tran started selling his Sriracha sauce to restaurants from the back of a van.
Demand for the sauce soared, and Tran moved to a factory in Rosemead, on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles, later expanding to the abandoned Wham-O hula hoop factory next door.
In 2010, demand for the sauce forced him to move again, to a new 60,000-square-foot facility in Irwindale, where Sriracha is currently made.
In 2013, however, complaints from local residents about spicy fumes from the new factory led to a nuisance suit by the city.
In the ensuing struggle, the factory was briefly shut down, sparking fears of Sriracha shortage among devotees.
The dispute was finally resolved after Tran installed stronger filters on the plant’s vents, and California officials backed down despite efforts from Texas to lure the company to friendlier grounds.
Tran (above) has no plans to sell the business, which he plans to pass on to his children, 47-year-old William and 41-year-old Yassie, who both work there
Besides Sriracha, Huy Fong only has two other products: a chili-garlic variant and sambal oelek, based on an Indonesian recipe.
The company does not advertise or market, and Tran rarely gives interviews to the press.
Sriracha’s wholesale price hasn’t changed since the early 1980s, and neither have its ingredients: chili, sugar, salt, garlic, and vinegar.
Today, the sauce ranks third in sales in the country after Tabasco, owned by the McIlhenny family since 1868, and Frank’s RedHot, a subsidiary of McCormick & Co.
Tran has no plans to sell the business, which he plans to pass on to his children, 47-year-old William and 41-year-old Yassie, who both work there.