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COLUMN ONE

Refugee's Concoction a Sizzling Success

By word of (scorched) mouth, a Vietnamese immigrant's hot sauce has spread like wildfire across U.S. It's used on hot dogs, crawfish, sushi, ringing up $7 million a year in sales.

January 17, 1997|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Without knowing it, you might be among the millions of Americans burned by David Tran. And if so, you probably liked it.

A diminutive, balding man who comes to work in coveralls, Tran is known to few beyond his family and 15 workers at his Rosemead hot sauce factory.

But his fiery red sriracha (sree-rah-chah) relish, packaged in a green-topped clear-plastic squeeze bottle that looks like it was meant to hold glue, has captured the hearts and minds of spicy-food fans from Fresno to France.

Tran sold about $7-million worth of hot sauce last year. That is way beyond what he expected when he started mashing peppers to make ends meet 17 years ago as a newly arrived Vietnamese refugee. "I thought I might make a thousand dollars a month, and I wouldn't have to work for somebody else," Tran said.

He has not advertised the sauce, which first appeared at a handful of Southern California Asian markets and on the tables of Vietnamese noodle shops. But enthusiasts--some of whom liken their first taste of the sauce to a gustatory epiphany--began to pass bottles on to friends. By word of (scorched) mouth, sriracha moved out of the Asian ethnic enclaves and spread like a California wildfire.

The garlicky concoction, thicker than Louisiana hot sauces, has only a tiny share of the hot sauce market, which generates an estimated $127 million in sales, according to the New York-based market research firm Packaged Facts. Its influence on American tastes, however, spreads far and wide.

Dino DeCario puts it on chicken wings at his Latrobe, Pa., bar, Dino's Sports Lounge.

It's the spice in spicy tuna rolls at countless sushi bars, and has broken the monotony of cafeteria meals for students at UC Berkeley as well as inmates at the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo.

Randy Yates of Ridgeland, Miss., slathers sriracha on crawfish tails at his restaurant and bar, Kalo's Tavern. "It's the best hot sauce I've ever had, and the only one we put out on the tables," said Yates, who as a delta-born-and-bred chef knows his chiles.

Other brands of sriracha, a traditional Southeast Asian sauce named after a Thai seaside town, are sold in the U.S., but none has achieved the broad following of Tran's version.

"I'm sort of astounded by it," said New Mexico hot sauce expert David DeWitt of the seemingly accidental popularity of this sriracha. DeWitt, author of "The Hot Sauce Bible," likens Tran's success to "a grass-roots, voice-of-the-people kind of movement."

Tran, 47, made his first hot sauce in Vietnam. His family members had planted chiles on land they had bought as an investment. Disappointed by the low market price for fresh chiles, Tran turned his crop into more profitable hot sauce.

The business was just one of several enterprises, including a market and a vacuum tube factory, run by the Trans in Vietnam.

He is the descendant of immigrants who went to Vietnam from Teochiu, China, in the 19th century. Teochiu Chinese prospered as merchants and industrialists in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia. As thriving capitalists, however, many were targets of hostility when Communists won control of Vietnam in the 1970s.

Tran, who served as a major in the South Vietnamese army, fled the country with his family in 1978, landing first in Hong Kong before coming to the United States.

After a few months in Boston, Tran came to Los Angeles, where friends told him the growing Asian immigrant population might be a natural market for his sauce.

With some savings he managed to bring with him from Vietnam, Tran and two brothers-in-law went into business. They rented 2,500 feet of factory space in Los Angeles' Chinatown for $700 a month, and bought a used 50-gallon electric mixer and a Chevrolet van.

Tran called the company Huy Fong, naming it after the Taiwanese freighter that carried him out of Vietnam.

Every morning, the men went to the Grand Central produce market in downtown Los Angeles to shop for the peppers they would mix and mash into sauce each day. Soon, they were buying all the jalapenos the market had to offer, and were driving their hot sauce-filled van to Asian groceries all over California.

Tran's entry proved well-timed. American tastes have shifted dramatically toward spicy foods in the last two decades. Per-capita spice consumption grew from 1.9 pounds in 1974 to 3.1 pounds in 1993, according to Packaged Facts.

Consumption of red peppers in the early 1990s soared to almost three times the levels of the mid-1970s, the American Spice Trade Assn. has reported.

Today, Tran's peppers are grown for him by a farm in Oxnard, and last year, he expanded his 10-year-old Rosemead plant by buying the shuttered Wham-O facility next door. Tran hopes to bring the factory back to life by churning out hot sauce where Frisbees, Hula Hoops and Silly String once came off the lines.

"I may be able to hire 100 people some day," Tran said excitedly of the future he imagines if sales of sriracha and five other hot sauces he makes continue to climb.

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