Red sauce, clear bottle, green cap, white rooster: the look (and taste!) of the most famous hot sauce on earth demands our attention. It’s as flashy as it is fiery. Its creator, Mr. David Tran, however, is humble by comparison. Even among the local Vietnamese-American community, Mr. Tran’s presence can go unremarked: he can dine undisturbed at his favorite restaurant while those around him season their dishes with the fruits of his lifelong labor.
Given the cultural purchase of sriracha, if he wanted, Mr. Tran could easily be a household face on par with Colonel Sanders. And yet, Mr. Tran declines the spotlight in the most American of ways: he just does his job, making “a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price” (as he is often noted for saying). Recently, VOC Staff were fortunate to visit with him in Irwindale, CA at the headquarters of Huy Fong Foods, Inc., where they assure you they don’t make tear gas.
As Mr. Tran made clear to us: he is a maker of hot sauce and a maker of hot sauce is what he is. He has no interest in making t-shirts, coffee mugs, or any of the other products that you can find emblazoned with his company’s iconic logo. So how did the Huy Fong Foods rooster end up on anything and everything?
It’s simple: Mr. Tran believes that if people want t-shirts with his rooster on them, they should be able to get them. He just doesn’t want to make them himself. This belief and Mr. Tran’s generous spirit motivate him to allow anyone who thinks they can earn a living using his logo to use it free of charge. He believes that if they can use his logo to achieve success as a t-shirt- or coffee-mug-maker, that’s good for everyone, especially if they go on to hire others. No royalties required!
The freedom to develop an idea, work hard at it, and prosper does not exist everywhere. Mr. Tran told us about his life in Vietnam, where he first made his sauces, and the relief that he and his fellow Vietnamese felt at the conclusion of the Vietnam war. The communists had won, but at least there was peace. Sadly, their optimism very quickly went sour.
Mr. Tran recollected seeing the communists arresting people in the street without any solid evidence and killing them. Suspect groups, including Vietnamese of Chinese descent like Mr. Tran and his family, were subject to persecution. The Trans escaped death but were exiled along with thousands of other ethnic Chinese in 1978. Not only was their property seized, they were also billed for the cost of their transportation out of Vietnam. It was the income Mr. Tran earned from selling his pepper sauce that funded his family’s escape. Fearing unscrupulous boat captains and pirates, the Trans left on three separate ships, with Mr. Tran seeking passage on the Huey Fong.
Displaying his remarkable ability to turn bad circumstances towards good ends, Mr. Tran took the name of the ship on which he had sailed into exile and gave it to his company. He thus signaled to all those who also escaped with him that his sauce was for them. Through hard work and a dedication to quality, the reputation of the rooster quickly spread. Mr. Tran has repeatedly had to expand production.
Throughout our time at Huy Fong Foods, the theme constantly returned to in our conversations was gratitude. It’s the reason why Mr. Tran still makes his sauces in America. He could make more money by relocating and yet he and his company remain. His American Dream was never to be a billionaire, but to live a good and happy life. Mr. Tran repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the fact that his adopted country made this possible. It was only in America that this dream could be realized.