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.