Every month, Jimmy Ly usually orders nearly 150 bottles of sriracha from Huy Fong Foods for one of his Vietnamese restaurants in New York City. The sauce opens the richness of a pho broth or adds a blast of heat to a banh xeo, a Vietnamese crepe.
“It’s not too spicy; it’s not too light,” Mr. Ly said. Sriracha can “really hit the sweet spot in terms of spice, sweetness, acidity, just that tang.”
But a few months ago, supply began to dry up.
Mr. Ly, who owns Madame Vo and Monsieur Vo in the East Village of Manhattan, said that his vendors could not source the sauce and that he couldn’t find it in New York City grocery stores. So he, like some other Huy Fong enthusiasts, bought two large bottles on eBay for $35 each, about five times the usual price, to use at home. But that price was insurmountable for his business.
For the second year in a row, Huy Fong, the maker of the most popular variety of sriracha, is facing production issues, the company said in a statement this month, because of “a shortage of raw material” with “no estimations of when supply will increase.”
The shortage has forced chefs like Mr. Ly to seek substitutes and to adapt recipes. The plastic squeeze bottles with green caps are missing from grocery stores, and Walmart is selling a two-pack of 17 ounce bottles for $86. Some die-hard fans have taken the drastic measure of paying exorbitant prices. Others have resigned themselves to a blander life.
Huy Fong said in its statement that “limited production has recently resumed” but because the company does not sell directly to consumers, “we cannot determine when the product will hit shelves again.”
The shortage doesn’t seem to extend to other hot sauce producers.
“We have contracts with small New England farmers where we buy our products,” said Gabe DiSaverio, the founder of Spicy Shark, a craft maker of hot sauces. “I haven’t seen problems there. I’ve seen a pretty stable inventory of really all peppers.”
Mr. DiSaverio speculated that the shortage of Huy Fong’s sriracha could be attributed to a problem with its suppliers. Huy Fong Foods did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Tabasco, which uses red jalapeños from the United States and Latin America, is not experiencing any shortages either, though the company acknowledged that last year’s poor weather had an impact on the industry. The company says it has scaled up production and started srirachashortage.com to meet a surge in demand.
Makers of hot sauce also emphasize that sriracha is a type of sauce rather than a spice or a pepper. Since so many people equate Huy Fong with sriracha, it may seem as if there’s a worldwide shortage of the sauce. There’s not.
“People hear ‘shortage’ and people think there’s a sriracha pepper — there isn’t,” said George Milton, a co-founder of Yellowbird, another hot sauce maker. Since the shortage of Huy Fong sriracha has been back in the news, he said, he has seen an uptick in sriracha orders, including from restaurants that may not display the bottles on their tables.
Mr. Milton also said he had not been affected by any shortage of raw materials. “Growing seasons have been getting weirder and weirder every year,” he said, adding that he has had to rely on multiple suppliers to get his ingredients in the past.
Huy Fong’s origins date back to 1975, when David Tran, the company’s founder, fled Vietnam and settled in Los Angeles. He began mixing his own version of sriracha, a sauce believed to have been invented by a Thai woman named Thanom Chakkapak, and by 1980, he was delivering orders in his blue Chevy van.
Huy Fong partnered with Underwood Ranches based in California in 1988 to provide the red jalapeños that help give Huy Fong’s sriracha its signature taste. By 2015, Underwood, 70 miles east of Huy Fong’s operations in Irwindale, was growing over 100 million pounds of peppers a year for Huy Fong products.
But that exclusive relationship ended in 2016 over a payment dispute. In 2019, a jury awarded Underwood $23 million in damages.
Since the fallout, Huy Fong has had to look beyond its backyard for peppers, relying largely on Mexican farms.
In recent years, Huy Fong has blamed climate change and a severe drought in Mexico that has pummeled jalapeño crops for the chile pepper shortages. While that is true, growing conditions have improved this year, said Stephanie Walker, a chile pepper researcher at New Mexico State University. She added that Huy Fong’s shortage troubles could be because the company didn’t have enough contracts with different farmers.
Craig Underwood, owner of Underwood Ranches, which now makes its own sriracha, said he had seen no trouble getting jalapeños from Mexico.
“We’ve had a huge demand for our product from Huy Fong’s former customers, as well as people out in the street who are looking for sriracha,” he said.
Still, for many people, sriracha just has to be made by Huy Fong.
In Houston, home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country, the popular restaurant Mai’s goes through at least 15 bottles of sriracha a day. Anna Pham, its general manager, said the restaurant had been warned of a coming shortage and stocked up. But its reserves have been depleted and it’s now following tips from vendors about where Huy Fong sriracha might be available.
Ms. Pham said she recently went to a grocery store in Bellaire, Texas, about 20 minutes outside of Houston, where she was restricted to buying 12 bottles at close to an “insane” $10 per bottle.
“It’s like ketchup to Americans; it’s a staple,” Ms. Pham said. “It’s like having salt and pepper shakers on your table. I can’t imagine not having it.”