Good PR Averts the Sriracha Apocalypse

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By Claire Daniel Comment

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For L.A. cool kids, the hottest ticket in town this weekend was a tour of the Sriracha hot sauce factory in Irwindale, California, which kicked off its grinding season with an open house (and much fanfare).

There, the company’s once-reclusive and sometimes-combative CEO David Tran greeted guests amongst red, green and white balloons next to an Instagram-ready cardboard cutout of himself.

Tran didn’t just set up a party to combat his company’s recent problems stemming from a bad reputation and an insurmountable odor: he opened the doors and let the world smell his spices.

At the registration table, employees checked names on a list as a speaker blasted a playlist of Sriracha-inspired rap songs. Every visitor got a brochure, a gauzy red hairnet and a ticket entitling the bearer to a T-shirt and 9-ounce bottle of Sriracha hot sauce.

Tours ended with tastings of Sriracha caramels, popcorn and ice cream. The new company store, the Rooster Room, was a particularly popular attraction.

“They have underwear!” said one woman, rushing inside. [L.A. Times]

“For 34 years, we have never had any kind of grand opening event. But people asked for this, so we’re doing it,” Tran said, adding: “We want people to come and see for themselves—is this smell harmful?.. [and] “to prove we make hot sauce, we don’t make tear gas.”

In case ketchup is more your thing or you’ve been living under a rock, we’ll catch you up: Last year Irwindale residents and officials asked a Los Angeles County Superior court judge to halt operations at the factory after accusing the sauce maker of flooding their city with an offensive spicy odor.

The battle was supposed to come to a head Wednesday, when the City Council considered declaring the Sriracha factory a public nuisance. But after a boisterous public hearing, the council decided to give the factory more time to come up with a solution. In a rare move, officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District offered to mediate the conflict and offer technical expertise.

So how did the company change things around? It didn’t start off well: When things first started getting nasty between the townspeople and Huy Fong Foods, the creator of Sriracha hot sauce, the company’s initial response was to fly a “NO TEAR GAS MADE HERE” banner. This move by the infamously reclusive CEO—who had never advertised, granted few interviews and even designed his own machines, taking up a blowtorch to prevent his competitors from duplicating his methods—did little to assuage the public’s fears. Public relations deteriorated.

So what did the trick (at least for now)? Tran’s decision to open the factory to lawmakers, reporters, residents and, yes, foodies (shudder), thereby allowing them to immerse themselves in its maybe-not-so-offensive aroma.

As Elie Wiesel once said, “Life is not a fist. Life is an open hand waiting for some other hand to enter it.”  Wise words that in this case prove applicable to brands as well: welcoming the public into the factory appears to have been a public relations coup for Huy Fong.

Read more about the event over at The Los Angeles Times, and check out the video below:

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