Sriracha’s Fate? Just a Generic, Saucy Toponym


In the 1980s in LA, Vietnamese immigrant David Tran started making his own version of a hot sauce based on a condiment from the Si Racha city in Thailand. He called it Sriracha, but never registered a trademark, and today his company, Huy Fong Foods, rakes in a hot 80 million dollars a year selling the stuff. However, hundreds of others have gotten in on the action—there are Sriracha knock-offs everywhere.

Calling his lack of trademark a “missed opportunity,” lawyers have approached him in the past asserting that they can take his case to court, as the knock-offs have violated common-law trademark rights. But at this point, Sriracha is so generic and widely used that it is probably too late. And that’s ok by Mr. Tran. He does not believe he missed out, saying that copy-cats are merely providing free advertising for him. Which may be true—despite the proliferation of competitors, his iconic red bottles, with the (trademarked) rooster on the front are still seen as the true and original version of the sauce, as evidenced by the fact that so many people call any brand of Sriracha, “Rooster Sauce.”

But unfortunately for Mr. Tran, he is about to get more free advertising than he could ever want. The McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco Sauce, are launching their own line of Sriracha.

Mr. Tran admits that he is a bit nervous, but alas, there isn’t much he can do. I were him, I would explore trademarking “Rooster Sauce.” Though the ship has sailed for Sriracha, Huy Fong Foods might still be able to cling to the colloquial name for their sauce.

And that’s about all there is to it. Sriracha has officially taken its place among the legion of food toponyms—comestibles named for their place of origin. From sardines to hollandaise, turkey to Buffalo sauce, java to tangerines, toponyms in food are ubiquitous. Oh, and though most often they are generic and untrademarked, there is one notable exception that Mr. Tran is surely aware of. There is a province in Mexico, famous for it’s hot peppers, called Tabasco…


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