A judge is set to decide Thursday whether to grant Irwindale's request to stop production of Sriracha sauce while the company tries to limit odors wafting into the neighborhood.
The decision could have serious ramifications for next years' supplies of Huy Fong Food's three hot sauces: Chili Garlic, Sambal Oelek, and the wildly popular Sriracha "rooster" sauce.
The city of Irwindale sued Huy Fong Foods on Monday, claiming the spicy scent of ground peppers is a public nuisance in violation of the municipal code. The lawsuit came after some nearby residents complained of burning eyes and throats.
The city asked for a temporary restraining order that would stop all operations at the factory immediately as a judge decides whether a preliminary injunction is necessary.
If the restraining order is granted, a judge will then decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction during a later hearing.
The city also asked for a permanent injunction which, if granted, would stop all operations at the plant until Huy Fong Foods can remedy the smell to both the court and city's satisfaction.
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 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 to its exhaust vents. But he says the chiles 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 chile 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. Also in Irwindale is the MillerCoors Brewery.
"But most people don't consider that a bad odor. It's like, 'Oh, beer!' " Bailey said with a laugh.
Bailey said she got a tour of the Sriracha facility about three weeks ago, while chiles were being crushed. She said she wore a hair net but no mouth covering.
"I didn't have any adverse reaction while I was there," Bailey said. "No burning eyes, no throat constriction, and I've had that while cooking chiles at home."
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.
Kathy Galaz, 66, said the smell is relatively mild. Galaz makes a spicy brand of salsa that makes her sister sneeze and cough, but both are undisturbed by the smell from the factory, which is visible from their front door.
"We walk the dog, we mow the lawn. It doesn't bother us," she said.
Thomas Serrato, 64, of Baldwin Park said it just smells like someone cooking chorizo.
"I knew what it was. It smelled like chili and that's all there is to it," he said. "It didn't burn my eyes or anything."