Forget pumpkins and sweater weather—deep in the Los Angeles suburbs, it’s chili-grinding season. Huy Fong Foods, makers of the Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, open their doors to the public from August until October 17th for free tours of the factory where the fiery “rooster sauce” is created.
My golden ticket was a space in a friend’s car. Reservations are made in advance—as many people as can fit per carload, due to limited parking. but since Angelenos are allergic to carpooling, plans got shaky at the 11th hour, until finally a friend-of-a-friend gave me her parking pass, meaning I could take my own vehicle (and posse), with the understanding that I’d have to use her name. I am so not a “Barb,” but I forged her signature on the agreement form anyway, waltzing through security (amid flashbacks of that time I almost went to Costco jail after getting busted for using my former boss’ membership card. They let me off with a warning.)
Huy Fong’s extensive list of rules includes no open-toed shoes (another difficulty for us Angelenos), no weapons, no unsecured jewelry, no smoking, no coughing or sneezing into the food, and a specific request to refrain from spitting. All seemingly reasonable guidelines.
We were handed hairnets and beard-nets while we waited in line with dozens of other fans. Friendly employees kept us on track, probably wondering why anyone would choose to be there on this 100-degree Saturday when we were free to go to the beach, the mountains or anywhere other than the godforsaken industrial town of Irwindale. (The city almost threw Huy Fong Foods out a year ago after residents complained of a “spicy odor,” but the allegations disappeared into hot air when the lawsuit was later dropped behind closed doors. The waiting area in front of the building was completely odorless if a little smoggy from nearby rock quarries, by the way.)
It’s not so much a guided tour as a quick herding through the clean, bustling factory. After an uneventful walk through a simple maze of stanchions, a smiling employee offered us tissues just before we viewed tons of jalapenos dumped from a truck on to a conveyor belt. Of course I passed on the tissues, knowing the rules. Then a garlicky tickle crept up my throat and into my eyes. Suddenly everyone around me was coughing. I repeatedly cleared my throat in an effort to suppress that shit. (Rule #7)
After the pummeling of the peppers (and our nasal passages), visitors stopped to snap photos of workers loading paste-filled barrels in efficient Oompa-Loompa-like fashion, then traipsed past mundane bags of sodium bisulfite straight onto the money shot: red sauce machine-pumped into the iconic plastic bottles, then dangled from their little green hats and tucked into packing boxes, each pallet robotically lifted and neatly stacked for delivery. We filed outside assembly-line-style for our swag-free eight-ounce anniversary bottles of sauce, tasting dishes of Sriracha-flavored chips, croutons, ice cream, popcorn and beef jerky—plus a snazzy 35-year anniversary t-shirt. On my way to the gift shop some 10-year-old boy feigned choking on his snacks until he dramatically hocked a loogie into one of the large trash bins (clearly an infraction of ordinance #6 from the Visitor Guidelines). Visions of Augustus Gloop danced through my head and I hoped he’d be sucked away through a pipe off to a saucy River Styx.
On the way out we sponged on stick-on Sriracha tattoos and a fan photo with the Willy Wonka of Hot Sauce himself—owner David Tran, who generously met his public wearing what looked like Sriracha Vans on his feet. It was what I imagine a 50s-era Walt Disney sighting would have been like—a little bit magical and sublime.
Other nice touches included free fresh peppers and a hand-pumped filling station for anyone needing their keychain-bottles topped off. All in all, the tour is a smart public relations move for a true American success story (watching Sriracha: The Movie got me a little teary-eyed) and a product so beloved by the people that Tran has never paid for advertising. I recommend for kids or others who dig watching backhoe and bulldozer videos or that “How to Make Crayons” episode of Mr. Rogers.
I didn’t win a lifetime supply of Sriracha or inherit the factory for my good behavior, but the next day the guy in the foam mascot costume from our group photo started following me on Instagram, so that’s something. #35spicyyears
Shawna Kenney is a writer and snack connoisseur living in Los Angeles.
Main photo: David McNew/Getty