The growth and popularity of Huy Fong’s Sriracha hot sauce is an amazing success story. With Sriracha’s cult following and being in the news, music videos, clothing lines, et cetera lately, perhaps it’s a story you’ve heard: David Tran, of Chinese decent, leaves communist Vietnam and settles in the US where, in the 1980’s, he starts making his own version of a Thai hot sauce by hand and selling it door-to-door in Chinatown. The now famous Rooster? The Chinese Zodiac sign Tran was born under and had an artist draw for him while still in Vietnam.
And although that barely scrapes the surface of the Huy Fong Foods success story, the behind-the-scenes story is all those chile peppers and the amazing, long, symbiotic partnership Tran has with Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Ranch and supplier of ALL of Sriracha’s chiles – 58,000 tons this year alone.
Underwood (on the left, with Jim Roberts, operation manager and right hand man), is a farmer, born and raised. His family has farmed Ventura county, just a bit north of Los Angeles County, since 1867 and has managed to survive all the economic swings that have buried many family owned farms nationwide. Back then, crops were mostly things like walnuts and lima beans and under the Underwood Family Farm name (the retail arm of the family business), they still sell numerous crops direct to consumers such as artichokes, beets, fennel, Brussels sprouts, kale, and tons of other fantastic produce.
It was due to a fateful phone call Underwood made to a mutual vendor of Trans that linked these two together at the beginning of Sriracha’s growth. That first year, they grew 50 acres of chiles for Huy Fong Foods (average yield: 30 tons per acre). Four years ago they were up to 17,000 tons, and today, after 26 years in business with Tran, Underwood Ranch grows 58,000 tons of the unique jalapeño chiles used exclusively by Huy Fong Foods. That’s 2,000 acres of farmland devoted to Sriracha alone, with plans to keep expanding. This is done two years in advance, so there’s time to find the right fields and to prep the soil for optimal growing conditions.
One of the things that sets Tran’s Sriracha sauce apart from other hot sauces is his use of fresh chiles. Most companies use dried chiles, but Tran insists that his be packed fresh. During harvest season, Underwood Ranch picks and delivers up to 30 loads of chiles a day, usually delivered to Huy Fong Foods within 2-3 hours of being picked depending on which farm they are harvested from. Besides some original Underwood acreage, this enormous operation currently is spread out over 40 fields, including Ventura, Valencia and Kern Counties.
Planting starts in March. Employees hand weed the fields as much as possible to reduce pesticides used to keep the pepper weevils and other crop destroyers away. Around 1987, Jim started building the machines it would take to streamline the harvesting process. Although there is still some handpicking done throughout each field, the majority is done by machine, with the added help of approximatly 200 employees during harvest season. A terrific byproduct of Jim’s machinery is low waste. By creating portable harvesting and production machinery, Underwood Ranch eliminated all trash from this process by simply recycling the ‘waste’ (rocks, twigs, unwanted chiles) right back into the soil. It also cuts down the emissions as there is no need to haul the chiles to a processing plant. The chiles go straight from the ground and into a truck in about 25 minutes, then onto Huy Fong Foods. (There is a great field video you can see here.)
Mid-July through some of October, you’ll see truck upon truck of chile peppers heading through the LA traffic on their way to Huy Fongs huge new(ish) facility in Irwindale, CA. The new building boasts 25 loading docks where chiles are dropped off, and boxes leave daily to currently 10 different countries. Each one of these trailers holds 20 tons of chiles. About 5 trucks an hour come through and dump their beautiful red cargo for processing.
If you are a lover of Tran’s Sriracha, you may notice that different batches yield a different color hot sauce. Earlier in the harvest there are more green chiles, so the mix can be browner, or maybe even more orange. By the end of the harvest season, most batches are bright red. There is no food coloring added to the hot sauce. Tran has kept to his original recipe (with just a small amount of additives to keep it shelf stable), refusing to make it sweeter, milder, etc… In his words,”If it’s too hot for you, use less.” Perhaps even more amazing is that through the rise of gas and produce prices over his 34 years in business, Tran has kept his pricing the same, insuring people of all economic class structures are able to afford it.
Watching these chiles get harvested in a field, then watching them make their way off the truck and through the enormous factory is truly amazing. The process is streamlined for freshness in much the same way as it is on the farm. They are washed, crushed, mixed with their other components, and placed in drums in what seems like the blink of an eye. Twenty drums are filled every hour during harvest season and brought to the storage end of the factory. They are stacked with the other 200,000 drums awaiting fulfillment – necessary, as this process can only be done during a short window of time every year.
The warehouse section of the factory is 70% skylight, cutting down on electricity usage. And here’s a bit of Sriracha trivia many of you may not know: The bottles and blue drums are all manufactured on-site, cutting waste and emissions down even further.
And in case you followed the news when neighbors in Irwindale complained of the chiles hurting their throats or eyes…
For these two giants in their industries, Underwood and Tran are some of the sweetest, humblest, generous people out there. With their passions alined, it will be interesting to see how big these two family businesses can grow together. The dedication for growing the perfect chile and making a great product for their fans is what drives these men and has connected them. And it’s nothing a big corporation can snatch up. Craig Underwood hopes his daughters or Jim’s boys continue the family farm into new generations to come as does David Tran with his family. Again, as Tran says in his still-broken English, “I need someone to take it over and only my children can do that. This is my loved one. I don’t sell my loved one for anyone.” And I’m sure Craig and Jim feel the same way.
While you can’t buy the special Sriracha chiles unless your name is David Tran, you can still visit and support Underwood Family Farms:
- Farmers Markets throughout Greater LA and Ventura Counties
- Pick-Your-Own Produce at their Moorpark and Somis locations
- Check out their awesome Fall Harvest Festival, now in it’s 17th year
There is a great, short documentary you can see here: Sriracha, the Movie
You can also give making your own hot sauce a go by checking out my homemade Sriracha recipe.