DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And a controversy over the newest darling of the condiment world - Sriracha, is continuing. The popular hot sauce in the rooster bottle is produced by Huy Fong Foods in the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale. The company has brought big business to the suburban city, a much welcomed boom. It's also brought complaints from some residents who say there is a spicy odor emanating from the plant.
Last night, after a contentious hearing, Irwindale's City council decided to give Huy Fong a bit more time to figure out how to contain those fumes.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has the story.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Sriracha, the hot sauce for hipsters - and the rest of us - has gotten widespread national attention since some Irwindale residents complained. They say that when the red jalapenos that give the sauce its distinctive color are crushed, the fumes from the chilies become a big problem.
Last fall, during grinding season, Yolanda Wested told CBS News she couldn't stay outside.
YOLANDA WESTED: We had a bridal shower, we had to have the guests go inside, because they were choking, hacking, it was right in the throat.
BATES: The people who have complained for the 12-week period in which Huy Fong Foods grinds its fresh jalapenos, say the air is downright dangerous. Young Whang is the proprietor of a liquor store right across from Huy Fong headquarters, and she doesn't agree.
YOUNG WHANG: I don't smell any. I came to my customer, I ask her sometime, are you smell any? They say no.
BATES: But in a city with a population just under 1,500, even a few complaints matter. Writer D.J. Waldie has spent several decades chronicling the evolution of Southern California's suburbs. He says Irwindale's size is a large part of why the local government is taking these complaints so seriously.
D.J. WALDIE: City councils, particularly in small communities, have a very small electorate, and they need to worry about the anger or uncertainty of just a few hundred people.
BATES: Maybe even fewer than that. The South Coast Air Quality Management District told NPR that while 61 complaints about Irwindale's eye-watering air had been received since October, 41 of those complaints came from only four addresses. Media manager Sam Atwood said agency personnel investigated most complaints, but could only trace the odor to Huy Fong on three days.
So revenue and the cachet of producing one of the world's most recognized condiments, or occasionally irritating the sensitivities of a few residents - what carries more weight?
SAM ATWOOD: Both have decent arguments, but that's what makes it a tough case in a lot of ways.
BATES: That's University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour. He says the Huy Fong clash with its neighbors represents two legitimate, competing interests. On the one hand, Armor points out, you have mostly-Latino neighbors who strive to maintain well-kept blocks and don't want to see - or smell - any slippage in standards.
JODY ARMOUR: Communities of color are concerned with being blighted.
BATES: On the other is David Tran, who came to the United States with nothing as a Vietnamese refugee; his entrepreneurial spark turned a taste of home into $60 million in sales last year.
Filmmaker Griffin Hammond produced a documentary called Sriracha with David Tran's cooperation. While filming, Hammond visited the factory during grinding season and admits the smell in the grinding room can be, in his words, pretty unbearable.
GRIFFIN HAMMOND: But once I step outside the grinding room, I don't smell it anymore. They have it nicely cordoned off. And every time I've been outside the factory, I've never smelled it.
BATES: Last night, representatives from the Air Quality Management District read a letter at the latest City Council meeting offering to work with Tran to suggest and evaluate ventilation designs that would resolve odor issues so he and Irwindale can coexist peacefully.
Meanwhile, people in other cities, including on the East Coast, have invited David Tran to move Huy Fong to their region. Filmmaker Griffin Hammond believes that's highly unlikely.
HAMMOND: Because, of course they're not going to move to Philadelphia. There are not fields of red jalapenos in Pennsylvania.
BATES: Although they do put Sriracha on cheese steaks.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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