Chipotle's Sofritas Burrito, its new vegan option, is available starting March 3rd in New York City and Boston, and is rolling out nationally.

In its 20-year history, the Mexican fast-food chain has never added an entirely new item. Enter Sofritas: shredded organic tofu braised with roasted poblanos, chipotle chiles, and spices.

Last fall, the burrito maker partnered with Hodo Soy for the main ingredient in the then-unofficial meatless taco filler. The Oakland-based company has amassed a hearty following for its tasty, organic, and GMO-free soy-based protein.

"We just fell in love with the product itself and came up with something that I think even if you're not a vegetarian or vegan, you could eat it and love it," says Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman. And offering a plant-based ingredient as a main course fits squarely with the company's "Food With Integrity" message.

For Chipotle, the tofu option accomplishes two goals: appealing to vegans and vegetarians (as well as omnivores looking for a healthier option), and further pushing its anti-factory-farming agenda.

The only bad news for burrito lovers: the introduction of new menu items does not mean the "secret" 1,500-calorie super burrito will be on the menu board anytime soon.

Chipotle's First-Ever New Menu Item, The Vegan Tofu Burrito, Goes National

Sofritas will soon be available at a Chipotle near you. Culinary manager Nate Appleman explains how the humble bean curd won its slot on the menu board.

Chipotle does not often update its limited, but classic, menu. In fact, despite minor tweaks like adding brown rice and burrito bowls, in its 20-year history, the Mexican fast-food chain has never added an entirely new item. But today, after a year-long testing period in select locations, Chipotle is officially adding Sofritas—the official name for the shredded organic tofu braised with roasted poblanos, chipotle chiles, and spices—to its nationwide menu. So how did the humble bean curd win its slot on the Chipotle menu board?

"It was really ingredient driven," Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman explained to Fast Company. As Fast Company's Ariel Schwarz explained last fall, the burrito maker partnered with Hodo Soy for the main ingredient in the then-unofficial meatless taco filler. The Oakland-based company has amassed a hearty following for its tasty, organic, and GMO-free soy-based protein. Appleman, who worked in several Bay Area restaurants before coming to Chipotle in 2010, was one of those fans. Under his guidance, Hodo debuted at ShopHouse, Chipotle's Southeast Asian-style outpost, which opened in Washington, D.C. in 2011.

Nate Appleman, Chipotle Chef

A little over a year later, Appleman started experimenting, mixing Mexican flavors with Hodo's tofu. Eventually, a chili-based recipe stuck. "We just fell in love with the product itself and came up with something that I think even if you're not a vegetarian or vegan, you could eat it and love it," he said.

That's one key reason Hodo's tofu appealed to Chipotle: It tastes better than "99% of the tofu products you'll find in the grocery store," as Schwartz put it, and it therefore may appeal even to carnivores. The chain restaurant had tested a vegan option, the Garden Blend, once before, and it did not meet that taste standard.

The current tofu-based recipe started out as a chorizo substitute and took a year to perfect; one of the final recipes contained honey, which would have DQ'd it for vegans. But Appleman realized Chipotle would miss a huge opportunity to appeal to a group of eaters that not too many fast-food behemoths even consider. And meat eaters so far haven't been deterred: Appleman says he has even seen people mix the tofu with chicken, for example.

All in all, customer feedback has been positive and tofu burritos, tofu tacos, and tofu bowls make up 3% of sales in restaurants, and that's with "very little marketing," added Chipotle's communications director, Chris Arnold. I, a meat eater who appreciates tofu, went to taste it with a vegetarian companion. We both happily ate our entire sampling. My colleague, Jessica Leber, applauded the texture. Tofu dishes can be spongy; Sofritas comes chopped up so that it almost feels like eating chorizo. As for the taste, it has a chipotle chili flavoring, which isn't overpowering, but it's there. So you have to like a smokier taste.

Chipotle Sofritas Tacos

Beyond its tastiness factor, the inclusion of soy also fits in neatly with Chipotle's branding strategy. The chain's last few marketing pushes have highlighted its commitment to sustainable farming. Which is great, despite the unfortunate reality that Chipotle can't always get the ingredients it wants and often serves commodity meat.

Adding tofu to the menu might reduce that problem. "It could cut into the sales of meat and also maybe help reduce meat consumption," argues Appleman. He adds: "Growing soy is less harmful on the environment than raising a cow just because the earth energy it takes to raise a 2,000-pound steer versus soybeans is completely different." (For every 100 calories of energy put into producing conventional beef, you get only six calories back to eat. For the same 100 calories, raw soy yields 415 calories, according to a 2010 Mother Jones article.)

Sure, offering tofu might shift some meat eaters away from steak. Or, it might just attract the already converted to Chipotle, which would be good for business, but has less of a humanitarian ring to it. That second point is also arguable: Soy isn't that great for the environment. Although, to Hodo's credit, its creation is organic and GMO-free, making it a better bet than factory-farmed meat.

Plus, unlike grass-fed organic beef, the tofu will never run out. Before making Sofritas official, Chipotle worked with Hodo to ensure that it could meet demand without compromising quality. "We didn't want to take shortcuts and get a product that was not as good at the one that we started with," says Appleman.

Chipotle's new menu item raises one other important question for hungry burrito lovers: Now that they've cracked the seal for new menu items, does that mean we can expect some of those "secret" menu options to start appearing as well? Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like it: "We don’t recognize whatever you’re speaking of—'off menu items,'" said Appleman.

[Images courtesy of Chipotle]

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12 Comments

  • They had a vegan meat option in a Chipotle in Chelsea in NYC (and I think one other location), but they took it off the menu about a year ago or longer. I wonder if this is the same thing? But it didn't look like cubes of tofu, I think it was more like shredded meat. It was really good, though. I eat vegetarian for lunch and was never tempted to get anything but that.

  • This is already in Columbia, MD. I just had a taste of it this weekend, I was able to get half steak and half tofu at no extra charge. The tofu tasted great and I will likely get it again.

  • If you don't mind me asking, how is this Chipotle's "first-ever new menu item"? The very last link in the article ("secret" menu options) takes us to another fastcompany article discussing the "quesarito," and within that discussion, it's mentioned there that the quesadilla used to be a "secret" off-menu item, and it's now on menus. So isn't the quesadilla Chipotle's first-ever new menu item? Perhaps vegan tofu (rather than the burrito itself) would be better characterized as Chipotle's first new ingredient? (If it is that?)

  • Melissa Swanson

    No, they cannot. Read the organic standards. GMO seeds are prohibited by the organic rules. The ONLY reason you'd see trace GMO in organics is due to drift, which is not the fault of the organic producers. With the relatively new Non-GMO Project doing testing to verify items, it'll be easier to avoid items tainted by drift. DELIBERATE GMO use is prohibited. Drift cannot be avoided, sadly, since the wind is everwhere and plants can't all be in greenhouses to keep them safe. Blame folks like Monsanto for that.

  • Shellie Kenney Carroll

    Did you read the article? LOL

    Quote: "The Oakland-based company has amassed a hearty following for its tasty, organic, and GMO-free soy-based protein."

  • We've had this in Vancouver, BC for several months now - It's been a hit with the rather disproportionate number of vegans in this city. That said, Sofritas is not very tasty.