Sriracha maker turning up heat on city

By Frank Shyong / Los Angeles Times

Published Mar 2, 2014 at 12:01AM

LOS ANGELES — Avonne Penaflor and Anna Lim entered the doors of the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, Calif., took a deep breath and started to giggle.

They had caught wind of an odor that has allegedly inflamed respiratory conditions, launched lawsuits and made legions of fans hungry.

“It’s very nice, actually,” said Lim, 38, of Azusa.

Huy Fong Foods, the creator of Sriracha hot sauce, has been closed to the public for more than 30 years, fearing that competitors would steal trade secrets. But after months of Irwindale residents and city officials accusing the sauce maker of flooding their city with an offensive spicy odor, the notoriously private company has thrown open its doors.

Over the last few weeks, reporters, curious residents and foodies have streamed into the factory to take a tour that ends with a free miniature bottle of the Asian hot sauce, as well as a request to fill out a smell survey.

“We want people to come and see for themselves,” said Sriracha creator David Tran. “Is this smell harmful?”

As relations with Irwindale deteriorate, Huy Fong officials have turned to public opinion to help their case, hiring a public relations firm last week and finally assuming control of their Facebook page, which has more than 270,000 likes.

City officials see an uncooperative, defiant company that has dragged its feet in finding a solution. Last year the city asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to halt odor-causing operations at the factory.

After the judge granted the city’s request for a preliminary injunction, Tran displayed a green banner in front of the factory with the slogan: “No tear gas made here.”

Huy Fong executives say they’ve felt bullied and disrespected. They accused the city of taking an anti-business stance and rushing them toward a solution they can’t be certain will work.

The battle was supposed to come to a head last week, when the City Council considered declaring the Sriracha factory a public nuisance. But after a boisterous public hearing, the council decided to give the factory more time to come up with a solution. In a rare move, officials with the South Coast Air Quality Management District offered to mediate the conflict and offer technical expertise.

But there is still a basic disagreement, even among the experts, about whether the smell coming from the factory is harmful.

South Coast Air Quality Management District officials said that by Wednesday morning, they had received a total of 61 complaints about the Sriracha plant. But at least 10 came after the plant stopped grinding chiles in December, said spokesman Sam Atwood, and four households out of 18 total accounted for about two-thirds of the complaints. There haven’t been enough complaints for the AQMD to issue a notice of violation, Atwood said, though the agency admittedly sets a high bar for such a violation.

Some of the most vigorous complaints have come from Irwindale City Councilman Hector Ortiz’s son, according to court records. Manuel Ortiz did not return calls seeking comment, and Hector Ortiz declined to comment. Dena Zepeda, a 56-year-old woman who lives down the street from the mayor, has also lodged multiple complaints with AQMD, saying her glands are swollen.

Irwindale officials say they’ve gotten complaints from more than enough households to justify taking action.

“We continue to receive ongoing complaints, and we will pursue the action as long as someone’s complaining,” said City Attorney Fred Galante.