In Minnesota last October, Duluth Animal Control responded to an unusual call. A skunk had managed to get its head stuck in a jar. The story has a happy ending (rescuers extricated the skunk and set it free) and, following a spin on the local NBC affiliate, the animal acquired a sobriquet: the Sriracha-Loving Skunk.
Rarely does the public identify with a skunk. This time they could. After all, the unfortunate creature was only chowing down on some of Huy Fong's famous Southeast Asian chili sauce, and millions of Americans do the same thing. Huy Fong Sriracha is hot stuff in every sense of the term. Its distinctive rooster-emblazoned bottles dominate grocery aisles and restaurant tables. The condiment has been mentioned on The Simpsons and named a Bon Appétit ingredient of the year. Astronauts have even taken the Huy Fong sauce up to the International Space Station.
The question is: Why? Sure, Americans love spicy foods—but there's no shortage of hot sauce brands. And since sriracha (which takes its name from the town of Si Racha in Thailand) is a generic term, it cannot be trademarked by any manufacturer. Heinz and Tabasco have recently put out sriracha, too.
But as hot sauce fans will tell you, the rooster rules. Many believe Huy Fong tastes the best. Others point out the millennial cachet that the brand has won by doing zero advertising, yet still being the sauce of choice for celeb chefs like David Chang. "Huy Fong was the first sriracha on the market, and it feels the most authentic," said Kiley Hagerty, culinary specialist for Sterling-Rice Group. "There is a millennial drive around [Huy Fong] Sriracha that supports its cult-like following." Plus, she added, "The package with bilingual writing supports the authentically Asian feel."
If nothing else, Huy Fong is authentic. Founder David Tran pioneered his hot sauce recipe in Vietnam in 1975. Gaining asylum in the United States five years later, Tran made his sauce in buckets and delivered them by hand to Asian restaurants around Los Angeles. Later, he stuck a rooster (his Chinese Zodiac sign) on his jars and called the stuff Huy Fong—the name of the freighter on which Tran had fled his native country.
These days, his sauce comes out of Huy Fong's 650,000 square-foot factory in Irwindale, Calif.—a plant partially shut down in 2013 when locals downwind complained of headaches and stinging eyes. The action prompted a run on the sauce (perhaps part of why Huy Fong did $60 million in sales that year) until the city and the plant quietly worked things out. The action prompted Tran to open his plant for public tours—"to prove we don't make tear gas," he told The Atlantic.
Nobody really thought Huy Fong makes tear gas, just a chili sauce that brings tears to the eyes of people across the country. Plus one skunk in Duluth.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.