Huy Fong sriracha lands in Benghazi, Libya; next up, UAE and Qatar

Salah Bala has turned himself into the Middle East's first and still only distributor of Huy Fong sriracha, a wildly popular chilli-based hot sauce in the United States.

A man sells beans and spices in the old market in Benghazi January 29, 2013. Picture taken January 29, 2013. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori (LIBYA - Tags: SOCIETY FOOD) - RTR3D7IA
Powered by automated translation

When Salah Bala used to fly back to Libya to visit friends and family, he would always come bearing gifts: a few bottles of American-made hot sauce tucked into his carry-on.

But late last year, those few bottles gave way to a container, as Mr Bala turned himself into the Middle East's first and still only distributor of Huy Fong sriracha, a wildly popular chilli-based hot sauce made in a suburb of Los Angeles.

"Each time I take one or two bottles they ask me to please bring more," Mr Bala says of his relatives. "They like the taste."

They are not alone. Huy Fong has gone from a tiny family-run operation to one of the most recognisable sauces in the United States.

And it could soon be enlivening dishes in the Emirates

David Tran started his company in a small office building more than 30 years ago, filling each bottle by hand. Ten years ago, Huy Fong couldn't even be found in stores outside Los Angeles. Today, however, Huy Fong's sriracha is an American mainstay. It's featured heavily on TV, has cookbooks devoted to it, and can be found on the shelves of more than 3,000 Wal-Marts across the country. Huy Fong now sells more than 20 million bottles of sriracha per year, and will soon sell a lot more when it moves into a brand new 60,850 square metre headquarters in Irwindale, just outside Los Angeles.

Mr Bala first took notice of Huy Fong long before that. He had come from Libya around the same time that Mr Tran immigrated from Vietnam, and soon found himself seeing Huy Fong's signature bottle - a bright green cap and a strutting rooster emblazoned on a clear bottle - in restaurants all over town.

Back at home, his family found the sriracha a welcome change from the predominant hot sauce available at the time, Tunisian-made harissa. Sriracha is sweeter, uses garlic powder instead of paste, and jalapeno rather than serrano peppers.

"There are a lot of hot sauces back home," Mr Bala says. "But none as good as [Huy Fong's]."

For most people, the story would have ended there. But Mr Bala's business allowed him to go one step further. For decades he had been exporting various goods, mostly cars, back to Libya. Knowing he already had the means to move a lot of stuff a long way, last November, Mr Bala decided to get into the hot sauce business, ordering a container, or about 2,200 cases, for delivery to Benghazi.

After a two-week wait in a warehouse as Libya's health department approved the shipment, Mr Bala's sriracha finally landed on store shelves at the beginning of the year. And the returns have been promising.

"All my friends and family told me it's going really well," he says.

The sriracha has been such a hit that Mr Bala is thinking about expanding. Last month he spent a day in Dubai and a week in Qatar to find partners who could help him to market the sauce in those places.

In both Qatar and the UAE, what he has to do first is submit a sample bottle that tbe local health departments can analyse. Then, assuming they approve of the sauce, he has to print special stickers with ingredients listed in Arabic and affix them on every bottle.

Mr Bala is currently in Libya. When he returns to Los Angeles in the next week he will sit down with Huy Fong and explain what needs to be done to expand in the Middle East. By the end of March, he will have another container arriving in Tripoli. And if things go the way he's planning, he will soon also be selling sriracha in Egypt.

Mr Bala's only concern? That the move to the Middle East might have made his hot sauce too cheap.

"The large bottle in Benghazi only goes for four dinar [Dh11]," he says.