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Irwindale's a town where something always smells funny

The city, currently enmeshed in a flap over the Sriracha hot sauce plant, is no stranger to controversy.

April 26, 2014|Steve Lopez
  • Sriracha hot sauce workers protest before the start of the Irwindale City council meeting. The council previously drafted a resolution declaring Sriracha a public nuisance because of the burning smell coming from its plant.
Sriracha hot sauce workers protest before the start of the Irwindale City… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

Let me state my bias up front. I like hot sauce.

I like it on eggs. I like it in ramen. I like it on stir-fry dishes and Mexican food, and I don't think you can honestly call yourself a Californian if you're not a hot sauce lover.

And so I went to Irwindale last week to investigate the Sriracha sauce standoff. As you may have heard, city officials are waging battle against the manufacturer, responding to citizen complaints that jalapeño-scented air blowing out of the hot sauce plant can irritate your throat and make your eyes water, especially during the late summer, which is pepper-grinding season.

Let me tell you one more thing. I like Irwindale, even if it did draft an ill-advised resolution declaring the Sriracha plant a public nuisance. And let's be honest: You won't hear a lot of people say they like the tiny industry-rich San Gabriel town of 1,400, which is perhaps not the prettiest place on earth unless you find warehouses, business parks, a dog food factory and rock quarries attractive.

But Irwindale does things in its own fashion, as do many little L.A. County burgs that have little reason to exist other than for local lords to belly up to the trough of robust commerce. If nothing else, such towns keep headline writers employed.

Irwindale, for example, blew $20 million trying to woo the Raiders. A public official in the town was once indicted for rigging an election, and there are those who think that even today ballots should be checked to see if the voters are still among the living. In a delicious caper in the 1970s, a mayor was drugged with spiked enchiladas and then photographed in compromising positions with a nude woman as part of a blackmail plot involving a bid to legalize gambling.

And two current officials, including the mayor, have been charged with misappropriating city funds on a $200,000 New York City excursion that included Yankees and Mets games and tickets to "Phantom of the Opera" and "Mamma Mia."

In other words, this is a town where something always stinks. And who needs Broadway when you've got this kind of drama in your own backyard?

There's been so much money floating around Irwindale, with its industrial tax base, that the city offers residents a prescription plan in which they pay just $3 for their meds. And on Mondays at the senior center, residents get free haircuts.

The generosity was even extended to Sriracha creator David Tran's Huy Fong Foods, which was lured to Irwindale from Rosemead a few years ago with a loan deal that was — you'll be shocked! — a controversial use of city redevelopment funds. But the honeymoon didn't last long, due perhaps to terms of the company's financial arrangement with the city or differences over emissions controls. No one seems to know for sure.

I went to Wednesday night's City Council meeting, at which dozens of hot sauce employees wore flaming-red "Save Sriracha" T-shirts. One of them tearfully scolded the council members for not having "the guts" to admit they intend to shut down the plant, which employs 70 full-time employees and hires a couple hundred more seasonally. Some of the regulars told me they get full healthcare coverage, 401(k)s and Christmas bonuses, and they wondered what kind of nincompoops would threaten to run all those jobs out of town with unemployment still too high.

Art Alas, candidate for the local congressional district, offered to broker a tour of the Sriracha plant so city officials can come to their senses. And they'd better hurry, because a speaker from West Covina said that if Irwindale thinks the peppered air is hard on the eyes, his town would be more than happy to shed a few tears, as would towns in Texas and elsewhere.

Tran, the plant's owner, got a standing ovation after asking council members why they hated him. City officials announced they would delay a decision because they were confident a deal would be worked out, and Mayor Mark Breceda pulled out a half-empty Sriracha bottle and proclaimed that no one wants to keep Tran's company in town more than the City Council.

It was a strange declaration, given that the city has gone to court and spent months building its public nuisance case even though the vast majority of residents have not complained, and a bulk of the complaints have come from just a handful of households.

Dena Zepeda told me she's filed many of those gripes because the spiced air can feel like pepper spray. But she visited Tran at his plant to talk it over, and she can't see why city officials and the rooster sauce man can't act like adults and settle the stalemate.

When I visited the two residential streets nearest the downwind side of the plant, the Burrola family told me the smells can be strong at times.

"But we're Mexicans," said Lucy Burrola. "We're used to chili."

She said she is far more concerned about chemical odors that blow through town.

"There's a lot of cancer in this neighborhood," Burrola said, "and nobody says anything about that."

After the Wednesday meeting, Tran told me he was less encouraged than the council about any signs of progress. He declared that he's not changing a thing until city officials get off their thrones and come visit his plant to see what a clean operation he's running.

I'd be happy to ferry them there myself and then treat everyone to lunch so we can hammer out a deal. But it's Irwindale, Jake. I'm going to need guarantees that no one spikes my enchiladas with anything but Sriracha sauce.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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