Hot & Healthy; On the Menu: Chipotle Teaming Up with Oakland Tofu Company for a New Veggie Dish in Selected Markets

It’s an unlikely union: tofu and Mexican fast food. But a restaurant chain known for burritos the size of footballs and nighttime crowds of college students has teamed up with a small Oakland tofu company to use the vegetarian-friendly Bay Area as a testing ground for a new menu and image.

Starting Tuesday, Chipotle will add a new vegan burrito filler made with tofu from Oakland’s Hodo Soy to the menu at seven Bay Area restaurants. If diners approve, Chipotle says it will add the tofu dish, called Sofritas, to restaurants across the country, part of the company’s efforts to hone its reputation as healthier and more earth-friendly than its fast-food competitors. That move could also catapult Hodo Soy from a locally grown, 30-or-so-employee company into a major supplier for one of the country’s most popular quick-serve food chains.

But for Hodo Soy founder and chief executive officer Minh Tsai, the thrill of the new partnership is more about the opportunity to change tofu’s bad rap than the potential sales boost. He’s on a mission to demonstrate that tofu can taste better than the mushy, tasteless white cubes that gather dust on supermarket shelves.

“The win here is people will be exposed to tofu like they’ve never been,” said Tsai, 42, who models his recipe on the tofu he grew up eating in Vietnam.

But before Hodo Soy can change the minds of tofu skeptics everywhere, Bay Area vegetarians first have to approve of Chipotle’s new dish, which will compete with the likes of San Francisco’s Gracias Madre and Berkeley’s Flacos, popular vegan Mexican eateries, and dozens of veg-friendly taquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District — the very place Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells began his culinary career. Chipotle will track sales for several weeks, but expectations are high.

The San Francisco Vegetarian Society has given Chipotle’s idea a thumbs ups, and the Maryland-based Vegetarian Resource Group, predicts the new dish will be a hit. John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the resource group, said Chipotle already has a loyal following of vegetarian customers who order meat-free versions of its tacos and burritos. The restaurant was hailed as the No. 1 choice among vegetarians for quick-serve food in a survey by Vegetarian Resource Group, which educates the public about vegetarianism.

It may not be the totem of health food — its chicken burrito has been named among the 20 worst foods in America for its high calorie and fat content — but Chipotle is a popular hangout and lunch spot for college students and millennials, among whom vegetarianism is most popular.

“This provides the type of alternatives” that vegans and vegetarians want, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, which studies food industry trends.

Chipotle joins a growing number of restaurants adding vegetarian and vegan items to their menu. Burger King has added a veggie burger, Subway tested vegan sandwiches and Smashburger won praise for its black bean burger. With more people going meat free, Cunningham said, restaurants without a veggie option are bound to lose business.

This isn’t Chipotle’s first try at pleasing the meatless crowd — it tested a vegan burrito a few years ago that was pulled from menus after even the company agreed it didn’t taste so good. The Bay Area is the obvious place for Denver-based Chipotle to try again.

“They’re definitely looking at a market with high concentration of vegan and vegetarian eaters,” said Angelica Pappas with the California Restaurant Association. “That’s smart. They’re going to see right away if there’s a demand for what they’re serving up.”

And the Bay Area sits conveniently between other prime vegetarian and vegan markets — Southern California, Portland and Seattle. If Chipotle passes muster in San Francisco, it likely will appeal too broader West Coast demographic, Tristano said

But don’t expect Chipotle to be the next vegan mecca. The company has made strides to debunk its image as just another fast-food restaurant — McDonald’s was its largest investor until 2006 — but it hasn’t been a smooth transition. Chipotle outraged vegetarians a couple years ago after customers discovered pork was added to a bean dish that had been passed off as vegetarian, and its 1,000-plus calorie burritos are shunned by some as worse for the waistline than a Big Mac.

“They’re moving in the right direction, but I don’t think most consumers think of them as healthy,” Tristano said. “Their target audience is still going to be a young male looking to a one and a quarter pound burrito packed with chicken and steak.”

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