IRWINDALE, Calif. — Jesse Bracamontes is one of the legions of Sriracha hot sauce fans who squirts the bright red paste of peppers, garlic and spices on all manner of foods: pizza, takeout Chinese and even a plain bowl of noodles.
But when the pungent Sriracha smell wafts into the front yard of his Irwindale home, he says, his nose runs and he feels a little sick.
“It feels a little like pepper spray,” he said.
Bracamontes lives a short walk from Sriracha’s bustling new plant in Irwindale, which can produce as many as 200,000 bottles of the hot sauce each day. The company moved there last year in response to heavy global demand.
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But some neighbors say they are paying the price as Sriracha booms. They claim the smell is making their eyes water and throats burn.
Now the city is demanding the factory shut down until the problem is solved. Irwindale filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday against the sauce’s company Huy Fong Foods, claiming that the odor was a public nuisance and asking a judge to stop production.
Irwindale City Manager John Davidson said he has personally noticed the odor, at City Hall and just outside the plant.
“It’s pretty strong,” he said.
Sriracha has emerged as the condiment of the moment. It was formulated in L.A.’s Chinatown by a Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant decades ago and attracted a cult following. But over the last decade, the sauce’s popularity has exploded, accounting for more than $60 million in sales last year, according to the company.
It’s spawned a documentary, a food festival, a cookbook and even a special flavor of Lay’s potato chips. The company moved to the $40 million plant so it could triple its capacity, officials said.
Huy Fong officials said they are skeptical that the odor is as noxious as city officials claim.
David Tran, chief executive and founder, has offered to do what he can to control the odor and the company has twice added filters on their exhaust vents. But he says the chilies are pungent for a reason — it makes for a better sauce.
“If it doesn’t smell, we can’t sell,” Tran said. “If the city shuts us down, the price of Sriracha will jump a lot.”
The chili itself is a hybrid jalapeño pepper calibrated by Tran and a supplier for specific spice levels. It is ground fresh, not cooked or dried.
Chiles are offloaded onto a conveyor belt at the back of the building, where they are washed, then ground. Above the grinder, exhaust fans suck the chile-laden air into several filtered pipes that run all the way to the roof, where the peppery air is expelled.
Sergio Garcia, a 27-year-old machine supervisor, works near the unfiltered air all day without a breathing mask.
“It’s not so bad,” Garcia said. “You get used to it.”
A business- and industrial-heavy city, Irwindale is no stranger to smells, including some emanating from a dog food manufacturer — especially on an overcast day, said Lisa Bailey, the president of the Irwindale Chamber of Commerce.
So far Huy Fong Foods’ factory has passed muster with air-quality regulators. The South Coast Air Quality Management District got 11 complaints about odors related to the Irwindale plant — all since Oct. 21, including four Saturday and one Tuesday.
But Sam Atwood, a district spokesman, said the complaints couldn’t be confirmed after inspectors did “odor surveillance” of the area on two occasions.
Atwood said odors can be fleeting, depending on factors like the weather, and that deep marine layers can trap odors and pollutants close to the ground. But so far the district has no reason to take any action against Huy Fong Foods, he said.