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Production of a favourite sriracha was halted — again. What’s at risk when a brand becomes scarce?

Huy Fong sriracha is one of the most popular hot sauces in North America. It uses red jalapeno peppers but has struggled to get those peppers in recent years. Because of that, it's had to halt production multiple times, creating a shortage of the sauce.

In May, Huy Fong Foods announced it would halt production of its hugely popular hot sauce

A line of clear bottles with red sauce in them capped with a green spout

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When Taylie Nguyen's Vietnamese restaurant ran out of Huy Fong sriracha for its most popular soup, it had to find a substitute. And people noticed — immediately.

"We didn't get a lot of good feedback from the customers because they said it tasted way too different," Nguyen, manager of Golden Bell restaurants in Calgary, told Cost of Living.

"Customers would be bringing their own [Huy Fong] hot sauce."

Huy Fong sriracha is among the most popular hot sauces in North America. It was introduced in the U.S. in the 1980s by the company's owner, David Tran, and uses red jalapeno peppers. But the company has struggled to get those peppers in recent years following a fallout with its longtime supplier.

Since then, it's had to halt production multiple times, including recently in May, creating a shortage of the sauce. And these kinds of shortages can really test the power of a brand.

"On the one hand, true scarcity can reveal the attachment people have for their brand and reveal the iconic status of a brand," said Yann Cornil, who researches food marketing and consumer behaviour at the University of British Columbia.

"On the other hand … if consumers discover that other brands, maybe cheaper brands, are just as good, they might not be loyal anymore."

Siriracha bottles in a cart.

The power of a brand

Huy Fong sriracha has become an iconic product, known for its rooster logo and green lid. It's put the product into rarified air, with brands like Coca-Cola and Kraft Dinner. For some hot sauce fans, there's no substitute — other brands just don't cut it.

Nguyen says that during the shortage last spring, when the sauce was hard to come by, she actually had a customer walk out of her restaurant when they found out they didn't have the sauce.

"The first thing he did was taste the hot sauce off the table, and he's like, 'Do you have any real sriracha?' I was like, 'Oh, like, this is sriracha.' He's like, 'No, the real one,'" Nguyen recalled.

Cornil says that loyalty for a particular brand is built through consistency over time.

"It's the feeling of high familiarity that you have when you're tasting the product. And that brings back memories from the past that can elicit those positive emotions that can be comforting," Cornil said.

But for Huy Fong, which continues to struggle with supply, there isn't a simple solution. The company can't start using different types of peppers for its sriracha, for example, because a recipe change can be worse than a shortage, Cornil said.

He points to Coca-Cola, which, in 1985, launched a reformulation of its main product. New Coke, as it was branded, led to protests and people calling for the original Coca-Cola to return. Within months, Coca-Cola brought back the original recipe.

"You have to [do] everything to preserve the identity of the brand, the recipe, the ingredients," Cornil said. "A change in the recipe could be very damaging for the brand."

A clear bottle with a green spout that has very little of a red sauce

More shortages

CBC reached out to Huy Fong Foods to ask about the reason for the hot sauce shortage and what it means for consumers, but the company declined to comment.

Linda Hua of Kien Fat Trading in Toronto has a long relationship with Tran and the Huy Fong hot sauce. Her father got his first taste of it in the 1980s and started importing it to Canada for distribution shortly after.

Now Hua distributes 150,000 bottles of the sriracha every month. But with the shortage, she says, there has been a drop in demand.

"We have seen restaurants that have switched and have not come back," Hua said.

She says she's confident Huy Fong hot sauce will be back in the fall — but if you're a big fan, don't wait. "Go get it now," Hua said.

In the meantime, Nguyen at the Golden Bell restaurant is using the rooster-labelled sauce sparingly. The restaurant has been putting a substitute sriracha on the tables for customers who want to add it to their meal, and is using Huy Fong hot sauce for its soup recipe.

If a customer asks specifically for the Huy Fong sriracha, Nguyen will oblige, as she doesn't want more customers walking out. But until she knows there's more stock on the way, she says she will be conserving every drop.

"I see it almost as like a precious thing," Nguyen said. "It's like gold."

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