As we saw with disinfecting wipes, face masks and toilet paper at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, people have no shame about speedingly stocking up on the items they believe they require to stay alive. That’s one of the reasons why the green-topped bottles containing the beloved variant of sriracha that California-based Huy Fong Foods produces have skyrocketed in price and been extremely difficult to come by in recent months.
Caused by some murky combination of climate change-related farming issues and supply chain problems with a side of hoarding thrown in for good measure, the so-called sriracha shortage is Déjà vu for Huy Fung, which was forced to temporarily suspend sales of sriracha last year due to an inability to obtain an adequate supply of the sauce’s main ingredient, the red jalapeño chile pepper.
Though Huy Fong resumed “limited production” in July, the company has not provided an estimate of when it believes suppliers will be able to deliver an adequate number of peppers or when its iconic red sauce will be back on store shelves.
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Chris White, an Army veteran and West Point graduate who used his engineering expertise to patent a proprietary shipping device that’s capable of moving massive quantities of bulk pepper mash around the world, established the Louisiana Pepper Exchange in 2010. Though he doesn’t work with Huy Fong, he does supply mash to some of the world’s largest hot sauce manufacturers and has seen the impact of the lack of red jalapeños has had on his trade.
“The sriracha shortage has significantly changed the pepper industry,” White, who recently oversaw the purchase of a 10-acre site in New Mexico that will house a 40,000-square-foot processing warehouse with space for tanks that can store 30 million pounds of pepper mash, tells InsideHook. “Historically we sold some red jalapeño, but it’s not been one of our highest volume pepper ingredients. Since this sriracha shortage has developed, we’ve had exponential growth in the sale of jalapeño. Companies are trying to fill that gap in the market, which has really driven the demand up. It’s put a strain on the supply chain.”
Louisiana Pepper ships 40 or 50 million pounds of peppers a year, the majority of which have been rendered into a fermented, acidified mash that has a substantially longer shelf life than fresh peppers. White speculates that Huy Fung uses non-fermented peppers that are processed just before they are made into hot sauce, which is why the dwindling supply of fresh red jalapeños has forced the company to cease production of their particular brand of sriracha.
“It’s a seasonal product. Depending on where it’s being grown, it may only be harvested one time a year,” White says. “There’s not a lot of flexibility to pivot quickly to increase supply. There’s no pepper factory where you’re turning up the dial for more pepper or a way to run a double shift. It’s really about going through an agricultural process where you’re expanding the number of acres of pepper you’re growing. That can be a three- to six-month process. It takes quite a bit of time to really ramp these things up at a rate that can support the current void that’s in the industry. When you’re talking about millions of pounds of pepper, it takes some time.”
White’s firm sources purpose-grown peppers that are largely picked by hand in Columbia, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and even Egypt. But, since those peppers are generally turned into mash for shipping and longevity purposes, they carry a slightly different flavor profile which has made it difficult, if not impossible, for other hot sauce manufacturers to replicate the distinctive taste of Huy Fong’s sriracha. For now, sriracha fiends have to settle for what they can get.
“Some brands that originally maybe weren’t selling as much sriracha are now selling a lot because people, out of necessity, have had to try other products,” White says. “Once they get accustomed to using that product and explore and try different types of products, they’ll become loyal fans of the brands they were able to get. I imagine that the landscape of the sriracha world is going to be changed for quite some time because people are trying different products.”
While there’s certainly reason for hardcore Huy Fong heads to be hopeful — the supply “will catch up for sure,” according to White — expect the hot sauce business to continue to experience some growing pains due to its rapid rate of expansion.
“The hot sauce industry in general is projected to grow 129% globally between now and 2029. There are some sustainability issues in the supply chain we’re working very hard to try to address in the ways that we can,” White says. “Some of the regions where peppers are grown that traditionally had a lot of laborers are now more interested in not doing labor anymore. Having a sustainable model where farmers and laborers are incentivized financially to produce pepper is a very important part of this industry’s future. From the time they put a seedling in the ground, to the time they pull a pepper off the plant to the time it gets delivered and they get paid for it, it’s a long cycle. Sustainability is very important to the future of the industry because if we don’t have pepper growers, we’re not going to have pepper and if we don’t have pepper, we’re not going to have more hot sauce.”
We’d rather live without wipes, masks and TP.
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