Those who grew up with the brand would understand Lao Gan Ma’s fame and reputation as the go-to sauce that fixes almost everything, including steamed veggies, noodles, meats, and especially fried rice.
Aside from its addicting spicy goodness, Lao Gan Ma is known for the signature portrait on its label featuring a Chinese woman named Tao Huabi (陶华碧).
It was Tao who created the sauce for her small noodle shop in the Nanming District of Guiyang in 1989. In her noodle shop, she spiced up her simple noodles with her own concoction of hot sauce and soybeans (豆豉麻辣酱).
Affectionately known in her neighborhood as “godmother,” she would always generously provide discounts and extra food to poor students. Her noodle shop business soon became frequented by many local students and patrons, but she realized that it was not because of the noodles.
Tao realized that it was her spicy sauce that drew people in as customers. According to What’s On Weibo
, patrons would often come in to only purchase the sauce. After she discovered that other noodle shops in the neighborhood were using her homemade sauce, she knew her product had great potential.
To promote her condiment, she started giving out her sauces for free for some truckers who were delivering supplies to a nearby construction. Through word-of-mouth, many people from outside the city district came to learn about Tao’s condiment and were soon visiting her shop to buy her chili sauces and other condiments.
Inspired by the initial success, she then focused her attention on condiments. She decided to stop selling noodles and turn her restaurant into a sauce shop in 1994.
At age 49, she further developed the sauce, hired 40 employees, and opened a factory at a rented house in Guiyang, Guizhou Province in August 1996. The following year, the privately owned ‘Lao Gan Ma Foodstuff Company’ (老干妈风味食品有限责任公司) was officially established as a business.
The Lao Gan Ma brand did find immediate success but Tao experienced tough competition as some competitors launched counterfeit Lao Gan Ma sauces with similar packaging. Despite these copycat competitors nearly ruining Lao Gan Ma, Tao’s popular condiment pulled through.
The high court in Beijing finally ruled in 2001 that other similar products could not use the “Lao Gan Ma” name or imitate her packaging. Customers have also become loyal to the brand’s variety of flavors, such as oil chili, hot and spicy, beef soybean, and flavored chili chicken, among others.
In January 2011, Women of China magazine reported that the company’s assets were 1.3 billion yuan ($190 million) and that the company had 2,000 employees at that time. By 2013, Lao Gan Ma was already posting an annual sales volume of 3.7 billion yuan ($540 million).
At age 67, Tao Huabi quietly retired from her company and stopped being a stockholder of the Lao Gan Ma brand in 2014.
Chinese media would only report this development on February 14, 2017, sparking a widespread discussion on Chinese social media with the trending hashtag “The Spiciest [Feistiest] Woman of China” (#曾经中国最火辣的女人).
Today, the product has a variety of over 20 different flavors and is sold in China as well as over 30 countries from $8-$15 a bottle.