David Tran came to the United States in 1980, fleeing the arrival of North Vietnamese forces into his native South Vietnam. A South Vietnamese army major, Tran loaded his family onto a Taiwanese freighter, called the Hoy Fong, and embarked for a new life in Los Angeles. That ship would one day become his company’s namesake, and Tran would become the reluctant founder of a multi-million-dollar hot sauce empire, realizing the American dream without ever searching for it.
Tran never set out to become an entrepreneur. After his arrival in LA, Tran was unable to procure a hot sauce that went well with pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle dish. Other Vietnamese and South East Asian immigrants in his area were also missing “Sriracha”-style sauce, a blend of chili peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt (though Hoy Fong’s Sriracha is synonymous with Sriracha sauce, Sriracha is actually a type of hot sauce originating in Eastern Thailand, not a specific brand name). Tran decided to fill the void on his own, perfecting his recipe after a few months of trial-and-error and eventually distributing it to local markets in baby jars.
“My American dream was never to become a billionaire,” Tran said, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “We started this because we like fresh, spicy chili sauce. [We] make a rich man’s sauce at a poor man’s price.” In the U.S., a 28 ounce bottle of Hoy Fong Sriracha sells for about $4.
Hoy Fong’s Sriracha hot sauce is catching fire in America. The 33-year-old company sold 20 million bottles of the spicy red condiment last year, generating $60 million in sales. For context, Tabasco – which has greater global reach and a 145-year history – has estimated sales of $100 million. Shriracha, with its hipster street cred and celebrity chef endorsements, is closing the gap as its squeezable plastic containers replace Tabasco’s tiny glass bottles.
Responding to increased demand, Hoy Fong’s bottling operation will be moving to a $40 million, 650,000 square foot plant in Irwindale, California. IBIS World, the international market research firm, ranked hot sauce number eight on a list of the 10 fastest-growing U.S. industries, stating that “hot sauce sales have exploded thanks to demographic changes, immigration, and the growing popularity of spicier ethnic food in the United States, Canada, and Japan.” Globally, hot sauce is a $1 billion a year enterprise.
Tran gives his product global reach through 10 distribution companies that he has partnered with for more than a decade. “We don’t have a detailed record on where it’s being sold,” Tran, who only recently began speaking to reporters, told Quartz. “At the very least, I know that on the bottle there is English, Chinese, Vietnamese, French and Spanish.”
The man behind the world’s most famous Sriracha sauce also claims that he has never once increased the wholesale price – regardless of inflation tripling food prices since 1980. Tran has also never spent a cent on advertising, and has never even created an official social media account for his brand. He is tight-lipped about the company’s finances for fear of investors showing up on his doorstep.
Los Angeles will honor the increasingly popular Asian hot sauce with the city’s first annual Shriracha Festival, which kicks off Sunday. Though Tran’s signature blend will be a ubiquitous sight, don’t expect the humble millionaire to be in attendance.