The self-styled “sriracha delegation” of Texas lawmakers heads to Irwindale, Calif., on Monday to woo the maker of a popular hot sauce to the Lone Star State. And the makeup of the delegation makes clear that bringing sriracha back to Texas is a spicy topic for both parties.
State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas — who has led the charge to bring the Huy Fong Foods sriracha factory to Texas since residents in its current host city in California complained of itchy eyes and unbearably spicy smells — will be joined by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who represents the district where most of the chili peppers needed for the sauce are grown. San Antonio or a nearby city could be a good fit for the factory’s location, Villalba and Uresti have said.
State Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, will also be in the delegation. Vo speaks Vietnamese, the native language of Huy Fong Foods founder and chief executive David Tran. Representatives from the offices of Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples will also be attending.
Tran has said he is not ready to make a final decision about moving his business. Huy Fong Foods has been in California since it was founded in 1980, and the Irwindale facility relies on a single pepper grower for the chilis used in its famous sauce. California congressmen and other politicians have risen to Huy Fong’s defense. And the Irwindale City Council has backed off of its plan to deem the factory a public nuisance.
Since the rumble with Irwindale, almost two dozen cities have urged Tran to relocate to their part of the country. For a while, he actually considered it.
City attorney Fred Galante says the problem can be fixed and he hopes it doesn’t come to a move.
“We continue to try to work this out informally,” he says.
And after thinking it over, Tran has decided to stay in his Irwindale factory. He’s lived in California for more than 30 years, and he says he’s not planning to move.
But he might open another site, outside Southern California. An additional location would allow him to keep up with the ever-growing demand for Sriracha, and develop an added source for peppers, in case climate change threatens his current supply.
The Trib confirms this, and point out some obstacles to Texas as a viable Sriracha location:
Tran said Monday the odor controversy hasn’t convinced him to leave California. He told reporters forcefully that he has no intention to move his business, which has been in Irwindale since 2010 and made $80 million in gross revenue last year.
Actually moving or expanding into Texas wouldn’t be easy, though, for the company. Tran works with a single pepper grower, Underwood Farms, and expects to get 58,000 tons of fresh chile peppers this season. In 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Texas produced only 8,000 tons of chile peppers.
Crop yields in California and New Mexico are also much higher than they are in Texas — Underwood Farms can grow more than 10 times as many chiles on the same amount of land as Texas growers did in 2011. And most of the chile peppers grown in Texas are green; Huy Fong exclusively uses red chile peppers.
Craig Underwood, of Underwood Farms, said his business has produced all of Huy Fong’s chile peppers for 25 years. The company accounts for 75 percent of his revenue. A move to Texas would also be difficult because the weather patterns are very different, he said, and could make growing the chile peppers challenging.
Still, Tran said, Texas is a more viable state than most others because it’s possible to grow chiles there. While other states have expressed interest in his business, Tran said he has only had in-depth negotations with Texas officials, and he likes what he knows of the state so far.
“First-come, first-serve,” he told reporters, grinning.
So expansion is a possible option, and Texas – specifically, San Antonio – is in play for that. It’s too early to say how realistic that is. What is clear is that Tran and Huy Fong Foods have a very close relationship with their existing suppliers.
The jalapeño peppers that will be ground later this year at an embattled Irwindale factory and pureed into the red-hot chili sauce known as Sriracha are now being planted.
Wednesday morning in a Ventura County field off Highway 126, workers unloaded cartons of pepper plants from a Santa Maria nursery and then loaded up a tranplantation machine, which drops the plants into the soil.
Craig Underwood, 72, whose family has been farming in Ventura County for four generations, has been growing the jalapeño peppers that fill the bottles with the iconic rooster on the front and topped with bright-green lids for 25 years. That first year, he called Huy Fong Foods CEO David Tran and asked him if he could grow 50 acres of peppers for him. This year, Underwood will plant 2,000 acres, with plans to harvest 2,200 acres next year.
The international demand for Sriracha sauce has caused Underwood to double the acreage of his crops and expand his operation into Kern County.
“It’s amazing that the sauce has gotten such attention and it has such a cult following. Who would have guessed?” Underwood said.
Underwood said he and Tran have a special relationship. While most processors are trying to get the grower that will sell them the product for the cheapest amount of money, Tran cares about quality.
Tran insists on peppers that are bright red and have good flavor. He has even brought a taste-tester to Underwood’s fields.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Underwood said, eyes widening at the thought of the heat.
Peppers are always on Tran’s mind.
Underwood said at Tran’s daughter’s wedding, Tran pulled him outside on the balcony to talk about the crop.
“He’s very focused,” Underwood said of Tran.
Underwood will be present at the meetings Rep. Villalba and his posse will have with Tran, and he says in the story that he doesn’t think Tran will move. Who are we to argue with that?