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Sriracha! From the fields of Woodland into the iconic green-topped bottle | Bartell's Backroads

Follow spicy peppers from a Woodland field to a SoCal factory where they're turned into Huy Fong Foods' famous 'Rooster Sauce.'

IRWINDALE, Calif. — When you think of sriracha, many people think of the “rooster sauce” made by Huy Fong Foods, Inc., but did you know the process starts in farmer Tom Muller’s pepper field near Woodland, California?

“Peppers are grown all over the state of California. We just found a little niche in Northern California, and in this Woodland area they seem to do very well,” said Muller.

Sometime around the end of March or early April, Muller begins the planting process. It’s delicate work, where farm equipment and human hands come together. The goal is to get the roots of the plants close enough to the underground drip irrigation system so the plant can sip just enough water to produce ripe, plump peppers.

It’s a tough task. Tom grows about 450 acres of Sriracha peppers for Huy Fong Foods and the elements are often against him. 

“Every year you do this, you look at the year before and see what you can do different but it all comes down to how the weather will treat you,” said Muller.

It takes about 125 days for the fruit to grow (yes, a pepper is a fruit). When it turns bright red, it's harvest time. These peppers are a special breed with a tough enough skin and are grown at just the right high height for machines to pick them.

“Before the machines, we were picking with 80 people. Now, we do it with just nine,” said Muller.

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Speed is the name of the game. Huy Fong Foods requires super fresh peppers for their sauce and these specially designed harvesters pick, sort and pack the peppers in a matter of minutes.

“They are put on a truck and hauled to Irwindale. They are probably in the sauce within eight hours of me picking them,” said Muller.

The sriracha peppers may be grown in Northern California, but the famous sriracha “Rooster Sauce” is made at Huy Fong Foods Southern California facility in Irwindale.

“The total square footage of this facility is 650,000 square feet,” said Andrea Castillo, a tour guide at Huy Fong Foods Inc.

August through November is a busy time for her and everyone at the sriracha factory. Once the peppers reach the plant, they are washed, ground up and then put into 55-gallon storage barrels.

“The contents in the barrels is just the base of the sauce,” said Castillo.

Sriracha sauce has a long history. It originated in Thailand, and over the years different versions were made by many companies. David Tran is the owner of Huy Fong Foods Inc., and he came up with the “Rooster Sauce” sriracha recipe. 

“Our chilies are not roasted or boiled. It's natural and a faster process,” said Castillo.

David Tran has an inspiring backstory. After fleeing his home during the Vietnam War, he ended up on a cargo ship.

“David immigrated from Vietnam to Hong Kong on a freighter ship called 'Huey Fong.' It meant a lot to him, so he named his company after the ship," said Castillo.

Eventually, David made it to the United States -- first in Boston, then to Los Angeles where he bought peppers directly from the field to grind up and mix in his secret recipe of spices.

Huy Fong Foods has never done any formal advertising. Word of Tran's spicy sauce spread by mouth. Today, all three of his sauces are produced in-house, as are the iconic bottles. 

“Our production line can produce 18,000 bottles an hour,” said Castillo.

Credit: AP Photo/Nick Ut, File/AP
FILE - In this Oct 29, 2013 file photo, Sriracha chili sauce bottles are produced at the Huy Fong Foods factory in Irwindale, Calif. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

The clear bottle with a green top was not an accident. When full, it symbolizes the red chili pepper and the green stem, and the famous rooster logo has a meaning, too.

“David was born in the year of the rooster. He is Chinese and Vietnamese, too,” said Castillo.

The sriracha is made to order and that helps keep it fresh, making it a favorite for many. The popularity has created a good problem in Tom Muller's pepper fields. 

“People are eating this stuff like crazy and it's not the easiest thing to grow. So, we need more growers and I think that is what the plan is to get more peppers,” said Muller.

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