The entrepreneur who popularized the hot sauce Sriracha 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 in 1978 with his wife and son, with his life 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 sales of $131 million in 2020.
Despite his riches, Tran remains doggedly focused on the quality of his Sriracha, the widely beloved product emblazoned with a rooster emblem, for the year of his birth in the Chinese Zodiac.
‘I want to continue to make a good quality product, like making the hot sauce spicier…and not think about making more profits,’ he told Forbes in a recent profile.
David Tran, 77, founded Huy Fong Foods in southern California after fleeing Vietnam in 1978 with his wife and son, with his life savings hidden in cans of condensed milk
The peppers are unloaded from a truck into the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale
‘I could use less expensive ingredients or promote my products to make more money,’ added Tran. ‘But no—my goal is always to try to make a rich man’s hot sauce at a poor man’s price.’
Tran was born in 1945 in the Vietnamese city of Soc Trang, then still 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 store selling chemical products until he was drafted into the South Vietnamese army at the height of the Vietnam war.
He served for five years, never seeing combat but instead mostly working as a cook, until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
By that time married with a child on the way, he went to work with his brother farming chili peppers, and hit upon the idea to convert 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 the founder of Huy Fong Foods, David Tran, immigrated to the US from Vietnam, he named the company after the ship that carried him over
Supplies are seen stored in the 650,000 square foot Huy Fong Foods Sriracha hot chili sauce plant in Irwindale, California
The Huy Fong factory can produce 18,000 bottles of Sriracha an 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 he founded Huy Fong Foods, named after the cargo freighter that brought them to America.
Tran started out selling his Sriracha sauce to restaurants out of 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, and later expanded into the abandoned Wham-O hula hoop factory next door.
In 2010, demand for the sauce forced him to move again, to a new 650,000-square-foot facility in Irwindale, where Sriracha is currently made.
In 2013, however, complaints from neighbors about spicy fumes from the new factory prompted a public nuisance suit from the city.
In the ensuing battle, the factory briefly shut down, prompting fears of a Sriracha shortage among devotees.
The dispute was eventually resolved after Tran installed stronger filters on the factories vents, and California officials backed down in the face of attempts from Texas to lure the company to friendlier grounds.
Tran (above) has no plans to sell the business, which he intends to pass on to his children, 47-year-old William and 41-year-old Yassie, who both work there
In addition to Sriracha, Huy Fong has only two other products: a chili garlic variety, and sambal oelek, based on an Indonesian recipe.
The company does no advertising or marketing, and Tran rarely gives interviews to the press.
The wholesale price of Sriracha hasn’t changed since the early 1980s, and neither have the ingredients: chili, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar.
Today the sauce ranks third in the nation in sales, 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 intends to pass on to his children, 47-year-old William and 41-year-old Yassie, who both work there.