A fixture at Vietnamese restaurants, sriracha sauce can lace aromatic pho with a jolt of heat. It’s the star ingredient in spicy mayonnaise zigzagging countless sushi rolls, and it has even inspired a legion of fans to dress up for Halloween each year like a red plastic squeeze bottle with green cap.
But this year, a shortage of red jalapeño chiles has threatened it all for sriracha, a beloved condiment made from sun-ripened peppers from Mexico and seasoned with vinegar, salt, sugar and garlic.
Huy Fong Foods, a company based in Irwindale, Calif., that produces one of the most popular sriracha sauces in the world, confirmed that it was experiencing an “unprecedented shortage” affecting all of its chile-based products, which also include chile garlic sauce and sambal oelek.
In a statement by email, a company representative said that the issue stemmed from “several spiraling events, including unexpected crop failure from the spring chile harvest.” Huy Fong Foods generally goes through 100 million pounds of chiles each year, the representative added.
The company had foreshadowed the sriracha scarcity in an April letter to customers announcing that unfavorable weather conditions had resulted in a “severe shortage” of chiles.” It said that all orders placed after mid-April would be paused until September.
“Unfortunately, this is out of our control and without this essential ingredient we are unable to produce any of our products,” the company wrote.
A persistent drought this year in Mexico hindered irrigation and caused “spectacularly low yields” of the red chiles, which are grown primarily in four northern states of the country during the first four months of the year, said Guillermo Murray-Tortarolo, who researches climate studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Climate change is a possible factor causing the drought, Mr. Murray-Tortarolo said, adding that the drought was most likely to intensify and cause future production supply issues and cost increases for customers.
In a 2013 documentary titled “Sriracha,” David Tran, the founder of Huy Fong Foods, described the enduring popularity of sriracha and how he started it all.
After the Vietnamese War ended in 1975, Mr. Tran landed in Los Angeles, where he decided to make sriracha, a sauce believed to have been invented by a Thai woman named Thanom Chakkapak. By 1980, he was mixing his sauce and delivering orders in his blue Chevy van. Over the ensuing decades, interest in sriracha exploded, Mr. Tran said in the documentary.
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“The past 30 years, the economics sometimes up and down, for me I feel nothing,” Mr. Tran said. “Every day, every month, the volume increase.” In 2013, he said, company was making 70,000 bottles of the sauce daily from red jalapeño peppers.
Now, the squeeze bottles are a prized commodity for panicked customers who are clearing grocery store aisles and rationing the last of their stash.
Joyce Park, a longtime sriracha fan who lives in Seattle, said she grabs bottles whenever she sees them at the store, an instance that she described as increasingly rare. Ms. Park had hoped to marinate meat in sriracha to serve at her upcoming backyard barbecue wedding. She said she might instead make chicken seasoned w/ Tajín, a Mexican chile-lime salt product.
“I only have like three bottles. What am I going to do?” Ms. Park, 53, said. “It’s an emergency but there are other spicy foods hopefully.”
On Twitter, others posted images of hopeful expeditions in search of sriracha. Some who were unsuccessful said they had to resort to purchasing alternative sriracha brands.
Friends alerted Lurene Kelley, 51, of Memphis, Tenn., to the spicy condiment predicament. For a decade, she said, she’s been known to garnish “pretty much every savory food” with sriracha.
It’s not just sriracha she’s alarmed about, but also sambal oelek, a pure chile paste also sold by Huy Fong Foods.
“I don’t even know how to eat a Vietnamese spring roll without that sauce!” Ms. Kelley exclaimed. “Now, that is a food crisis.”
Restaurants said they were feeling the shortage, too.
Hanoi House, a Vietnamese restaurant in the New York City’s East Village, uses sambal oelek to prepare several of its sauces. When the restaurant’s purveyor was sold out of sambal oelek for several days recently, the restaurant had to gather a small haul from several retail stores, said Sara Leveen, co-owner of Hanoi House.
“We were able to put together a little stock that should last us several weeks,” Ms. Leveen said. “Then we’ll go from there.”
Other companies, such as Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, that also use Mexican chiles for their products, said they were bracing for impact.
“It hasn’t trickled down yet to a smaller supplier like me yet but I think just means it’s coming,” said Lauryn Chun, who founded Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi in New York City 13 years ago.
The chile shortage was yet another obstacle in two years of supply chain woes, Ms. Chun added.
“There’s been a price increase for every single thing that goes into manufacturing anything during the last two years,” she said.
As for what the future holds, Huy Fong Foods said in a statement that it was hoping for a “fruitful fall season.”
Kirsten Noyescontributed research.