Are you a purist or a pragmatist? Reactions to Tabasco’s new Sriracha hot sauce have divided hot-heads into two camps.
On the one hand, the loyalists:
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) May 28, 2014
And on the other, the-more-the-merrier types:
— Pete Healy (@PeteHealy) May 27, 2014
This isn’t the first pretender to the Huy Fong Foods throne. According to TIME, Trader Joe’s sells its own Sriracha sauce and brands like Subway have Sriracha-flavored products. But the main reason Tabasco elbowing in on the action elicits such an emotional response is down to one thing: An image problem.
Huy Fong Foods represents the American Dream. David Tran, a refugee of the Vietnam war, founded the company in Los Angeles in 1980. The LA Times reports the following origin tale: after settling in America, Tran could find neither a job nor a hot sauce he liked. And so he made his own—by hand, in a bucket—and started selling it out of a van.
Huy Fong Foods represents the American Dream.
Like many entrepreneurial luminaries before him, he encountered resistance. People told him his product was too spicy for American palates, and advised him to sweeten it or tone it down with a tomato base. But Tran stuck to his guns with the immortal line: ”Hot sauce should be hot… We don’t make mayonnaise here.” And the rest is history.
Who can resist a rags-to-riches story of a hard-working immigrant who overcame the odds and created a cult condiment? The man even named his company after the freighter ship that carried him out of Vietnam—and into culinary legend. It’s the kind of uplifting tale that’s just made for Hollywood (or made to be spun into a documentary).
Tabasco’s history is less sentimental, but it has a strong heritage. In the 1860s, Edmund McIlhenny began bottling the hot sauce on Avery Island in Louisiana, where it’s still made today. And according to Tabasco’s website, the current Chairman of the Board and CEO is a direct descendent of the company’s founder, the seventh McIlhenny to carry on the legacy.
Tabasco’s history is less sentimental, but it has a strong heritage.
But few think of Tabasco as a locally-rooted family company, because it’s just too big. The top-selling hot sauce in the country raked in $200 million last year, reports Bloomberg, and claims 19% of market share. It’s labelled in 22 languages and sold in 165 countries; it’s on every diner table you’ve ever sat at. It’s ubiquitous, it’s corporate—it’s the Goliath of hot sauces. And no one ever empathizes with the biblical giant.
The timing of Tabasco’s foray into Sriracha is also interesting. Huy Fong Foods’ new factory in Irwindale, CA has been declared a public nuisance by local officials due to the strong smell of chilis that emanates from it. TIME reports that a lawsuit is currently in the courts, and there’s a possibility the factory will have to shut down or relocate—which could mean a shortage of Sriracha on supermarket shelves.
Tabasco is only able to capitalize on that cult following because Huy Fong Foods can’t patent the Sriracha name.
From a business perspective, this is a prime moment for Tabasco to swoop in and capture some of that Sriracha market share. From a PR standpoint, though, it comes across as opportunist and predatory. Sriracha fandom arose around the rooster; Tabasco is only able to capitalize on that cult following because Huy Fong Foods can’t patent the Sriracha name (which is derived from a town in Thailand). In short, Tabasco didn’t earn it. And maybe they know it, and that’s why they’ve been so quiet about the new product release.
[via Angry Asian Man]