Who Killed Sriracha?
A few weeks ago I saw a 5-year-old wearing a Sriracha T-shirt in my local coffee shop. Because most kindergartners lack proprietary rights to clothing decisions, I deduced that the boy's mother bought the shirt in one of those postmodern "use your child as a billboard for your own interests" moments made famous by Ramones tee-clad toddlers in Greater Brooklyndia. Curious, I asked her where she got it. "Oh," she said brightly. "I got it on Etsy, but I think they have them at Target too." She took a sip of her latte. "That stuff is everywhere now."
It certainly is. Tabasco, Texas Pete, and other major hot sauce producers have all introduced their own versions of Huy Fong's Sriracha. Subway started putting it on sandwiches. Lay's introduced a chip. Blue Diamond flavored its almonds. Jack in the Box made a spicy Sriracha burger. Then Denny's did too. The 2015 Minnesota State Fair sold something called "Sriracha balls." Trader Joe's put out Sriracha potato chips with what looks like one of Daenerys Targaryen's dragons on the bag. Starbucks started handing out packets with breakfast sandwiches and salads. Stubb's BBQ made a Texas Sriracha Anytime Sauce. Heinz flavored its ketchup. Mark Cuban invested in mini Sriracha containers for your keychain after they sold 20,000 in a week following a BuzzFeed article and tweet from notable tech investor Kelso from That '70s Show. Chobani introduced a Sriracha mango Greek yogurt. And, on November 30th of last year, Kylie Jenner dyed her hair green, put on a red sweatshirt, and Instagrammed "Don't you just love Sriracha bottles?" It has 1.1 million likes and 78,000 comments and goddammit this is just the world we live in now.
What has happened to Sriracha, friends? Not long ago it was the toast of the Internet, the darling hipster hot sauce, an Asian-born, American-made spicy sensation. Then seemingly all at once, it was, as the coffee shop mom pointed out, everywhere. And there's nothing the Internet hates more than an indie going mainstream. The World Wide Web is now chock-full of hot takes on Sriracha being over. A Jezebel headline the other day read "Sriracha Has Made Its Overrated Sauce Available in Tiny, Convenient Packets." Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern told Today.com that there were "200 other hot sauces" he'd reach for before Sriracha. Former Laguna Beach blonde person Lo Bosworth went to culinary school and now thinks Sriracha has too much sugar, and that you should make your own face wash using Arm & Hammer baking soda and water.
Normally, these sorts of tales are relatively simple. A beloved small purveyor of goods is either purchased by a big (and thus evil) corporation or franchises out, the distribution lines open up, thus putting the product everywhere, thus diluting its unique and scarce appeal (see: Krispy Kreme). Or said bigger corporation sacrifices the original quality of the product, thus making it inferior (see: Hershey’s purchasing Cadbury chocolate in America). Or, in the case of craft beer, just the act of associating with the big corporation is enough to cause a backlash (see: all craft beer sales ever).
But here's the thing: Huy Fong -- the maker of the original Sriracha, aka rooster sauce, aka cock sauce -- hasn't done any of that. And yet it's now suffering the backlash. So what the hell is going on here?
Let's start at the beginning
In 1980, a Vietnamese immigrant by the name of David Tran started a company called Huy Fong, famously naming it after the boat which took him to America, and putting his zodiac sign (a rooster) on the bottles. According to Donna Lam, Huy Fong's executive operations officer, the Sriracha sauce wasn't actually introduced until 1983, and was named for Si Racha, a coastal town in Thailand famous for its red chile sauce (the best-selling Thai version, Sriraja Panich, is thinner, sweeter, and quite different than the Huy Fong recipe). With no advertising budget or sales force, Tran began selling to Asian markets and restaurants around Chinatown in LA, and slowly expanded his network into other cities with sizable Asian populations. "I used to call Sriracha the ‘secret’ sauce," says Lam. "You only knew about it by word of mouth."
Fast-forward 20 years to 2003. Huy Fong's Sriracha has had modest but steady success -- it's now being sold in Walmart, and P.F. Chang's is putting it in many of its dishes, but it was still very much in the background.
Then came the foodie revolution.
It's sometimes hard to remember that foodie culture as we know it -- the fetishization of chefs and certain ingredients or dishes -- wasn’t really a thing until the mid-aughts, helped along by new kinds of food television (Iron Chef, Top Chef, No Reservations), the rise of social media, foodie media (Chowhound, Eater, yours truly, various food subreddits, etc.), and the simultaneous ascent and shift in hipster culture away from its original rebirth as a sort of ironic white-trash movement (PBR, pre-investor Kelso from That '70s Show) and toward a culture of artisanal, obscure, and occasionally challenging food products. And one of these products was hot sauce.
According to a Quartz chart compiled by Euromonitor, between 2000 and 2013, the US hot sauce market grew 150% more than "that of BBQ sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard -- combined." IBISWorld says the market now has billion-dollar revenues. And it doesn't show signs of stopping. "I don't see it slowing down," says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for NPD. She pointed to several factors: "Multicultural changes in America, millennials constantly seeking out different tastes and flavors, even the boomers, as they get older they lose taste buds, so they want more pungent flavors."
But more than most hot sauces, Sriracha was uniquely positioned to be embraced (or hijacked, or appropriated, depending on your point of view) by the growing hipster foodie culture. Here's a product with an amazing, authentic backstory and no marketing or advertising. Everything came, as Lam said, by "word of mouth." By 2009, Bon Appetit named it ingredient of the year. The New York Times got off its creaky rocking chair to talk to Tran and to report on watching him Google Sriracha, and pull up pictures of Portland baristas with Huy Fong tattoos. Rockstar chef David Chang lavished it with praise and put bottles out in all his Momofuku restaurants.
The next few years were its Internet glory years, hitting peak Sriracha likely between 2013 and 2014. We at Thrillist certainly helped fuel that fire, with dozens of articles breathlessly covering every new product associated with it. I ranked the 10 most popular hot sauces in America in August of 2013, put Sriracha at number one, and watched people across the Internet call me swear words and celebrate in equal numbers. When Huy Fong was forced to temporarily shutter its new Irwindale factory in late 2013 because of complaints by residents that it was releasing eye-watering gas and smells, the news was covered around the clock. Fearful of what one outlet dubbed "The Sriracha Apocalypse," people started hoarding bottles, Beanie Babies-style.
With popularity reaching a fever pitch, it was inevitable that brand marketers who follow the hipsters and the foodies and the chefs realized they, too, needed to get in the game. And because Sriracha itself couldn’t be trademarked due to the fact that its name is based on that actual Thai town, Huy Fong left the door slightly ajar for other hot sauce companies to wedge their toe in. Asian companies were first to do it, shamelessly recreating the exact style of the Huy Fong Sriracha bottles, but with different animals instead of roosters. The major hot sauce makers in the US, Tabasco, Frank's RedHot, and Texas Pete, also released their own versions of Sriracha.
And after the actual sauces came the crossover products. First, it really just consisted of homemade crafts like paintings and rooster sculptures and T-shirts on sites like Etsy, but then bigger T-shirt manufacturers and food brands got in the mix. All of a sudden you had everything from Nature’s Way premium Spicy Sriracha coconut oil and CafePress "Don’t Pho Get Sriracha" baby bodysuits, to J&D’s Sriracha lip balm (!) and Sriracha candy canes for the holidays. Huy Fong, meanwhile, wasn't licensing any of them. Everyone but the company was cashing in. Riggs, for her part, says she's never seen another instance of a company's flagship product being appropriated like this. "Huy Fong couldn’t take ownership of the name," she says. "And because of that they’ve not been able to make people realize their product is actually unique. They let it get away from them."
Think about that. Everyone in America thinks they're getting the taste of Huy Fong Sriracha when they bite into a Sriracha chip or somewhat alarmingly stuff their child's stocking with Sriracha candy canes. Consequently, when that stuff tastes or looks like shit, or just becomes tiresome or ubiquitous, Huy Fong Sriracha is blamed for it. And that, friends, is how an Internet backlash begins.
Now, in terms of the hipster foodie community, eventual rejection is inevitable, as the product they're currently fetishizing is only fetish-worthy until it becomes known. And with the monthly foodservice product-tracking service SupplyTrack reporting that 16% of households headed by someone under the age of 35 stock Sriracha, the product is known. Lam says they now sell to 25 countries, including Dubai, Israel, Libya, and Kuwait. I even called the Cape Racha Hotel in Si Racha, Thailand (I figured someone there spoke English because its website features two white people dining alone in a big empty restaurant) and was told -- before the very polite woman hung up on me -- that she definitely knew there was a popular hot sauce in America named after their town. Temporary rooster tattoos have replaced the real ones.
Sriracha is known, and thus Sriracha is dead.
OK, maybe not dead dead
But while the foodie world scans the landscape for a new product to lord over everyone else, Huy Fong just keeps doing what it does. When I asked Lam if there was any regret that they didn’t give the sauce a name that could be trademarked, she said no, explaining that they were proud to be the company that made it a well-known product. And Tran, to his credit, has rejected all offers for buyout and any expansion he can't control. Unlike most hot sauce companies that import chilies from all over the world, he still only gets his from Underwood Family Farms north of LA. And according to several reports, he hasn't upped Sriracha's wholesale price. Ever. Clearly, this was not an entrepreneurial idea Tran had in business school at Babson, or a place in the market he thought was undervalued. He's just a man from Vietnam whose family made chili sauce, and so that's what he wanted to do too.
So what's to come of Sriracha? Will it just live harmlessly and sans cachet as a regular condiment that our kids and their kids will take for granted when they pull their drones up to a 3D food printer? I remember my grandfather once going on a rant about how, when he was young, there was only one kind of mustard, and now there are 700, and though this eventually turned into a tirade against the Japanese during World War II, the point is that, after all the hoopla and breathless press and hipster fetishization and rejections, we might just be seeing the process through which our generation accepts a new product as part of its life. Sriracha could be our 700 mustards.
Or it could just be a Babson case study on what can happen when the Internet wrestles control of a product's narrative away from the company that made it, and forces that company to play catch up monetizing its own thing after the Internet's fickle focus has shifted somewhere else. Last year, Huy Fong finally began expanding into other products, announcing a deal with Washington-based POP! Gourmet Foods to release a line of official Huy Fong Sriracha foods (popcorn chips, ketchup, and croutons), and opening a gift shop at the factory, selling -- as Lam detailed in an email -- "T-shirts, boxers, aprons, socks, lunchboxes, playing cards, beer, giant inflatables, plushy, sippy cups, shot glasses, coffee mugs, keychains, beef jerky, popcorn, chips, etc." Products, she wrote, "that appeal to everyone."
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s national writer-at-large, and goes through two bottles of Huy Fong Sriracha a month, whether the Internet likes it or not. Follow his foray into the crouton business: @KAlexander03.