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Irwindale Sriracha factory opens its doors: Owner hopes tourism will quell criticism

Twenty-eight-ounce bottles of Sriracha hot sauce are transported by conveyor belt to be packed and shipped inside Huy Fong Foods Inc. in Irwindale on Tuesday, Aug. 19. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Beginning this week, hundreds of truckloads of fresh-picked red jalapeño chili peppers are making their way to the city of Irwindale to be ground into Sriracha hot sauce. At the height of the August to November chili harvest,  30 to 40 trucks travel each day from a Ventura County farm to the Huy Fong Foods plant on Azusa Canyon Road, just south of the Santa Fe Dam. Each truck carries 20 tons of  chili peppers that were picked just hours earlier.

All of this activity could have been halted last spring, when the city of Irwindale became locked in conflict with Huy Fong Foods. Nearby residents of the 600,000 square-foot plant were complaining that the ground chili peppers emitted odors strong enough to make their eyes and throats burn. The Irwindale City Council issued a public nuisance declaration and filed a lawsuit against Huy Fong Foods. The controversy drew national attention, setting off concerns among devoted Sriracha sauce fans that a plant shutdown could cause a global shortage of the  spicy condiment.

But cooler heads prevailed. By May, the the company's legal battle with the city was settled and plant operators began working with local air quality regulators to improve the placement and effectiveness of odor control filters. Huy Fong Foods owner, David Tran always insisted the odors were minimal, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District never received enough complaints to issue a violation.

Still, Tran was anxious to repair any damage to his company's reputation, so he initiated a good neighbor strategy. "To stop the complaints, we just opened to the public," Tran told KPCC.

He opened the factory to public view as never before. Slots to attend the company's first big open house on Friday and Saturday filled quickly. Tran said more than 2,000 people asked to attend to see — and smell — the chili grinding up close. 

There was limited public access to the plant earlier. Last October, when some Irwindale residents' complaints about the chili and garlic smells became public, Tran invited reporters to tour the factory and even climb steep access ladders to walk up on the roof so they could smell what was coming from the carbon-filtered roof vents.

The company also started hosting a small number of tours back in February. They became so popular, the plant recently brought in two 13-passenger trams to whisk visitors around. But those earlier visits took place during months when the plant was producing Sriracha sauce from chilis that had been ground months before and stored in plastic barrels at the company warehouse.

Now Tran hopes to reverse public perceptions about the operation's smells and impact on neighborhood life by hosting an expanded tour schedule, letting the public visit and do their own sniff tests during the August-to-November chili grinding season. The first big truckloads of chilis began arriving on Tuesday and will continue around the clock, six days a week until the last have been harvested.

The tour ends at the gift shop

The company schedules four tours a day, and can accommodate about 25 visitors at a time. The tour starts in the company's training room and memorabilia gallery where visitors view photos of Sriracha being used by astronauts on the International Space Station, and artwork based on the sauce.  The guests don red or white hair nets and head out to the factory. Visitors on the first day of the big grind, found the factory to be loud, but without eye watering odors.

Plant tour guide, Sabrina Martinez narrates the peppers' noisy journey off the truck, into a hopper, up a conveyor belt and into the giant grinders where they begin their transformation into the hot sauce that has become the darling of the chef set.

The company makes its own bottles, as well as its blue 55-gallon barrels to store the fresh-ground chilis. Two years ago, at the former plant in Rosemead, the job of packing bottles of sauce into boxes and loading them onto pallets was done by factory workers. In the newer Irwindale location, robots complete the process, lifting boxes onto pallets to be shrink wrapped.

The tour moves on to the gift shop, which offers dozens of Sriracha themed t-shirts, each with its own message. Martinez read a few of the favorites:  "'Keep calm and pour it on', 'some like it hot', then we have our traditional logo one, we have a 'Sriracha-holic', we have 'Respect the Rooster'."

"The rooster" refers to the company's distinctive logo.  Owner David Tran, born in the year of the rooster, admits the odor dispute, while frustrating, made him and his product more famous than ever.

"Oh yeah, I mean, it's free advertising for me," Tran said.

But Tran added that all of the publicity didn't affect sales. The company's production had already doubled since the old days at the Rosemead plant. Huy Fong Foods is not taking new customers these days, except for international exporters.

He'd like to expand, but the company's California Department of Health canning permit requires him to keep all freshly-bottled sauce on site for 35 days before shipping, to make sure it does not develop any bacteria. So space in his vast plant that could be used for production and bottling machines is instead occupied by pallets of waiting sauce.

Outside the factory, just a few hundred yards away, Irwindale neighbors like Dena Zepeda were aware the chili harvest had begun. Zepeda said she could smell it.

"It's not bad right now. You can smell they're doing something. Its not bad. It gets to where you see my eyes, they're watering." Zepeda said, demonstrating the type of cough she said bothered her during previous chili crushing seasons.

She and other neighbors are some of the prime targets of David Tran's openness initiative.

"One on one, I talked with him. I was very satisfied with what he told me. He even said that he guarantees it won't smell from my house," Zepeda said.

She took the tour, got a complimentary bottle of Sriracha, and if the smells return, she knows who to call.