Lao Gan Ma is one of China’s most popular brands of chilli sauce. The stern looking lady on the front of the bottle assures you that you are about to taste one of her complex and delicious chilli sauces. Over the years, Lao Gan Ma has gained many loyal customers, and has been imported to many countries all around the world.
The origin of this delicious range of condiments is a real rags-to riches story, with the company’s founder Tao Huabi bearing many hardships and challenges on her way to becoming one of the most famous faces in China.
Tao Huabi’s story began in a remote village in Guizhou Province. Born into a poor family, she never got the opportunity to go to school. Tao married at 20 but when her husband died of illness a few years later, she was left to raise their two young children on her own. Illiterate, and without any specific work skills, Tao Huabi became a street vendor to ensure that she could provide for her young family. She worked tirelessly and would regularly make the journey to get ingredients on foot, trekking 5km to the store and carrying the goods home on her back.
It was in 1989 that Tao opened a noodle stand, and here she served generous portions of tossed noodle salads with her special home-made chilli sauce. Her stall began to develop a wide following, with customers unable to get enough of her delicious chilli sauce. Often, they would come just to purchase bags of the sauce to take home. Truck drivers dining at her stall helped to spread her fame far and wide, and soon customers were driving across town, out to her store just to buy her chilli sauce.
Eventually, after years of encouragement from her customers, Tao closed down the noodle stall, and set up a factory to produce her chilli sauces on a larger scale. Over the years, as the fame of her Lao Gan Ma chilli sauce grew, Tao was faced with a growing number of copycats entering the market. Spending several millions of yuan each year, Tao employed a team to track down and expose fakes. Each time, Tao has had to come out to battle to get the other products banned and protect her brand.
China’s most famous chilli sauce empire is still privately owned and run by Tao and her two sons. Tao, who has had no background in business or finance, has overcome illiteracy and many other obstacles in her life to become the head of a business employing 5,000 people, with production plants covering 750 acres, producing over a million jars of Lao Gan Ma sauce every day.