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The Savior of Sriracha

With an open letter and a hashtag, a Denton councilman capitalized on a national frenzy over the embattled California hot sauce.
By Farraz Khan |

As Kevin Roden elaborates upon his week-old campaign at a dingy pan-Asian eatery in Denton, a bottle of Sriracha stands at attention nearby—vivid red, with a white rooster emblazoned amid a practical Rosetta Stone of labeling. Sriracha is the Southeast Asian-style chile sauce that has, quite suddenly, eclipsed all other condiments. And Roden is the man angling to be the Sriracha cult hero.

And it’s definitely a cult, as evinced by manifold Sriracha foodstuffs (from popcorn and pickles to cupcakes and cocktails), Sriracha paraphernalia (bumper stickers, iPhone cases, lip balm), Sriracha memes (a Last Supper table with a Sriracha bottle), Sriracha-inspired art (still-lifes, poetry, an R. Kelly-esque rap), even Sriracha tattoos.

It’s not just the plebes, either. Culture’s arbiters of gastronomic taste, too, trumpet the cock sauce: celebrity chefs have embraced it; Bon Appétit crowned it 2010’s Ingredient of the Year. And this: NASA’s food-sciences division has reportedly supplied International Space Station astronauts with Sriracha for nigh on a decade.

But Roden—a 39-year-old Denton City Councilman, for District 1—claims he has known and loved the stuff since before its recent fad (a statement you’d expect from Denton’s “hipster politician”). Perhaps that’s why, when Sriracha faced an existential threat, he was the first to come to its defense.

The bombshell dropped late last October. Huy Fong Foods—the southern California-based maker of Sriracha—was the target of a lawsuit initiated by the city of Irwindale, California, where a 655,000-square-foot Sriracha production facility was allegedly wreaking havoc upon its environs.

City officials claimed residents were complaining of “burning eyes,” “irritated throats,” and “headaches caused by a powerful, painful odor” apparently originating at the new factory. Sriracha is made using freshly harvested hybrid jalapeño peppers (in 2012, Huy Fong processed around 100 million pounds of chiles). Following “20 to 30 smell complaints”—in a city of about 1,400—Irwindale city attorney Fred Galante filed a public nuisance suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, asking the judge to stop Sriracha production.

The alarm sounded.

Panic set in over a looming “Sriracha Apocalypse.” Ardent fans started online petitions to “Save Sriracha!” from “hot-sauce haters.” Others posted open letters to Irwindale. Another launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign. There was talk of stockpiling, of learning to make our own Sriracha. Many disputed the claims of Sriracha fumes; others openly mused about letting Irwindale burn. 

Yet, amid the gathering clouds, there came a ray of hope. A second-term city councilman of a small Texas town published an open letter titled, “Sriracha: Come to Denton, TX!”

Kevin Roden came to Denton, Texas, in 1992, to become a rock star.

Roden—the one sitting at Mr. Chopsticks—is waxing nostalgic, a wistful note in his smile. He sports a blazer-cardigan combo and a scruffy chin. With his (literal) long face and a lightly tousled side-part, he looks somewhere between Luke and Owen Wilson.

He decamped from North Canton, Ohio, where he grew up in a large Catholic family; had his first brush with politics with the ’92 Clinton campaign (he and a friend tried to holler at Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin; “The Gore daughters were really hot,” he says); and discovered music (he and his buddies started a band called Odyssey, which performed Yes and Police covers). Music landed an 18-year-old Roden in Denton; he matriculated in UNT’s music program to study jazz.

Fast-forward to the mid-2000s. Roden was married, an admin with the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, and he, with wife Emily, regularly hosted a discussion group called Drink & Think. Thanks to the booze, Drink & Think became enormously popular among Denton’s young and creative sets—“A lot of the times, it was just ‘Drink & Drink’ ”—a chance to dig into a potpourri of topics, from movies, to the nature of God, to the definition of art. It attracted a colorful cast of characters: students, social activists, professors, politicians, even the homeless and some indie rockers.

In 2007, Roden says, this community was galvanized by a controversy surrounding Fry Street, Denton’s historic artistic haven. An out-of-town developer had purchased the block and threatened to raze it. “He wanted to build a damn Walgreens!” says Roden, still incredulous. Ultimately, the developer won, and decades of culture were demolished. “This was a center of culture in a community that understands itself as artistic and creative. It was like sucking the soul out of the people.” 

In the aftermath of Fry Street, many of Roden’s set became involved in local government. Roden had volunteered before for a couple of City Council initiatives, but in 2011, he found himself a newly elected Denton City Councilman, for progressive District 1.

On October 30, Roden came upon the Sriracha controversy after reading one of The Atlantic’s blogs. Instantly, his brain started churning. Within hours, he had spoken with Denton’s Office of Economic Development, posted the open letter, and created a Twitter hashtag to set a social-media wildfire. (Incidentally, the initial hashtag was misspelled—#Siracha2Denton—calling into question the hipster politician’s cred as a pre-fad fiend.)

He pitched the city to Huy Fong as a hip, young place that would complement Sriracha’s cult rep. In the open letter, he touted Denton as “the indie music capital of Texas” and “a city of 48,000 college students.” He also listed its selling propositions: among them, “cheap land,” “shovel-ready industrial sites,” and “an emerging urban farm district.”

But would Huy Fong bite? Unlikely. As of this writing, the court has partially granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction, requiring Huy Fong to cease any operations producing the fumes. But, by the time of the court order, Huy Fong had already completed its yearly chile-processing cycle—the ostensible cause of the odor—so it was unclear how the injunction would affect Sriracha production.

Roden says Huy Fong is aware of his proposal, but it hasn’t contacted him nor has it responded to his phone calls. He’s guessing the company isn’t willing to talk during a heated legal dispute. But he readily admits a mistake in his early strategy: “I should’ve just picked up the phone and called them.”

But there’s been a side effect to the campaign. Roden has been fielding inquiries from investors across the nation who want to learn more about Denton. “I wasn’t expecting this,” he says, “but I’ll take it.” And perhaps less welcome for this progressive politician, Roden has earned comparisons to Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican who has ruffled feathers by trying to poach companies from other states, including California.

Still, Roden hasn’t given up on Sriracha. He says he’s playing the long game, that one of America’s fastest-growing food producers (according to a Bloomberg Businessweek story) may eventually want to open additional facilities outside of California; if it does, Denton might be on its mind, thanks to his opening gambit. Until then, this deferred Sriracha savior will be waiting.


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