IRWINDALE - The "rooster sauce" empire built by a refugee from Vietnam will move next month to a new headquarters, a 650,000-square-foot factory in Southern California. Chinese entrepreneur David Tran, 69, started Huy Fong Foods just a few months after immigrating from Vietnam as a refugee in 1979. Its signature project is the spicy sriracha sauce bearing the picture of a rooster.
"Thirty-three years in business and we still only have three products, it says a lot," said Executive Operations Officer Donna Lam, who is Tran's sister-in-law. "I think we are a little bit different."
Tran founded his business in 1980 in Los Angeles' Chinatown and moved to a factory in Rosemead six years later. Since then, business has exploded; he now sells his famous sauce in every U.S. state and every continent across the globe, with the company's newest customers in Libya. To keep up with demand, the company had to build the new $40 million facility in Irwindale, 10 miles east of Pasadena.
Tran works seven days a week in all aspects of the business, even down to installing the electrical wiring on the factory's new chili washers and mashers.
"When I'm not here, I'm always thinking about my business," Tran said.
The new building was erected in 2011, with the help of city of Irwindale redevelopment funds, but Tran's meticulous methods, custom designed and self-installed equipment have slowed down the move, said Director of Operations Adam Holliday, who is Tran's son-in-law.
"We are doing a lot of the installation ourselves, that's how (Tran) has always done it," Holliday said. "I remember when I first started working here, he would hire a plumber, for example, and he would watch him and he would say, 'That's easy,' and then he would do it himself."
The big move into the new factory has also had to work around the strict production schedule for the three chili sauces Huy Fong produces. The company harvests all its chilies -- which last year was more than 50,000 tons -- from one farm, Underwood Family Farms in Ventura, once a year around the third week of August.
Last year Huy Fong produced its first batch of chili sauce in Irwindale, but had to truck the finished product back to Rosemead for bottling. Huy Fong makes all of its bottles and one-ton chili storage barrels in-house and packages them to be picked up by a distributor. Now, the bottling equipment is almost completely installed in Irwindale, and Holliday said the company hopes to be in full operation for the upcoming harvest season in August or the beginning of September.
Tran, who lives in Arcadia with his wife, said he decided to make his own version of the Thai-inspired Sriracha chili sauce because the options already in existence didn't satisfy his taste.
"The other sauces out there were not using fresh chilies," Tran said. "Hot sauce, you make it your way. You don't try to copy someone else. I wanted to make it as fresh as possible."
He first started producing the sauce while still in Vietnam, bottling it in baby food containers and selling it out of his home. When he started making it in the U.S. he assumed it would mainly serve the local Vietnamese community.
"I started my chili sauce business where I lived ... for our Vietnamese community. I never thought we could sell it to the mainstream," Tran said. "We started from very small."
Even as his product's reach has expanded, Tran has maintained a family-oriented business. Both of his children work for Huy Fong, as do their spouses. Holliday said the company only employs 50 people year round, adding about 100 temporary workers during the harvest season. Holliday says the company tries to "stay humble and make a product people like," and continue to offer the product at a low price.
"My sauce is the rich man's quality for the poor man's price," Tran said. "I need money but I don't need to be a billionaire. I need to keep the price low so that everyone can enjoy it."
And it appears Tran's goals have been achieved, as the chili sauce has made its mark throughout the San Gabriel Valley and way beyond. A local company even prints and sells T-shirts, pins and other merchandise with the "rooster sauce" logo.
The sauce has also made an appearance in a few videos from comedians David and Andrew Fung, who create music videos representing the Asian community in the San Gabriel Valley.
Andrew Fung said the sauce has become somewhat of a celebrity in its own right, especially in "the 626."
"The sauce is pretty much ubiquitous, in every pho restaurant, it's on every Vietnamese table and even American restaurants have it," Fung said. "I think it's pretty cool that a sauce that started here in Rosemead is worldwide now."
And Tran said the company will only keep growing -- at least as fast as the farm can grow more chilies. Even as the company prepares to complete the big move, he said he's already looking forward.
"Every year we increase business by 20 percent, so in 2017 we will have no more room" in this factory, he said.