Vegetarian burrito fans in Canada rejoice: Chipotle Mexican Grill is bringing Sofritas north. Starting Monday, the fast casual chain will be serving up the vegan tofu filling in burritos, tacos, salads and taco bowls alongside regular meat options in its one Vancouver and eight Toronto outlets.
The Denver-based chain has been testing Sofritas in a few U.S. markets over the past year. My vegetarian wife and I happened to be in one of them (San Francisco) last week and we just happened to pop into a Chipotle for a quick lunch. Now, I wouldn’t dream of eating a vegetarian option when meat is available, but my wife wasted no time ordering it. Chipotle’s only other option for vegetarians has typically been burritos or tacos with a few veggies and a big dollop of guacamole, so she was quite excited for the new tofu choice.
The verdict? She liked it quite a bit. The tofu is as close as it gets to sausage – it’s modeled on chorizo. “It doesn’t taste like tofu because of the spices,” she says, and it includes chipotle chilis and poblanos.
Vegetarians already account for about 7% to 10% of Chipotle’s business, according to communications director Chris Arnold, who I chatted with in Toronto this week. Despite its newness, Sofritas make up about 3% to 4% of sales, he said. The tofu option is obviously proving popular.
If you’re interested in food but don’t know much about Chipotle, it’s a story worth checking out because it’s not a typical fast-food chain. In the early ’90s, chef school grad Steve Ells was working as a cook in San Francisco. He couldn’t help but notice the popularity of taquerias and burrito places in the city’s Mission district, so he took the concept to Denver and opened the first Chipotle in 1993. It was supposed to be a side project while he focused on starting a “real” restaurant, but it quickly became a huge hit.
Expansion followed and then, in 1998, McDonald’s invested. By 2005, Chipotle had 500 restaurants and in 2006, a highly successful initial public offering. McDonald’s ended up getting out that year as management decided to divest of all non-core holdings, but the company ended up quintupling its initial investment. Chipotle now has more than 1,500 locations in five countries and 37,000 employees.
Chipotle is different from McDonald’s and other chains in a number of ways. Firstly, the company prides itself on a “food with integrity” mission statement – it aims to use naturally raised meat, organic produce and hormone-free dairy whenever possible. All of the Sofritas tofu, for example, comes from Hodo Soy, an Oakland-based company started by Minh Tsai, a Vietnamese immigrant who found American tofu to be bland and nothing like what he used to eat as a child.
Chipotle also doesn’t play the new product game like many of its peers do. Sofritas notwithstanding, the company’s menu has remained largely unchanged over its 20-year history. Rather than coming up with new concoctions to attract customers, the chain instead focuses on innovating with ingredients and cooking. Its pinto beans, for example, used to contain bacon, but cooks figured out how to remove and retain the same taste, which obviously made the option palatable to vegetarians.
For the past two years, the company has also been experimenting with new concepts and technologies through Pizza Locale, a small pizza chain in Denver. The expansion, which was secret until late last year, is using a rotating oven that can cook a pizza in two minutes flat, indicating that Chipotle is still very interested in making food fast. And speaking of, the chain was one of the first to introduce a mobile ordering app way back in 2009, which competitors are only just now getting around to.
The company also owns all of its outlets and doesn’t franchise them out. Arnold says this allows for better quality control, and it avoids the sorts of disputes with franchisees that every other chain inevitably has to deal with.
To that end, Chipotle pays employees more than minimum wage and offers benefits, including vacation time and health care. That’s generally a given here in Canada, but it’s highly unusual in the United States. Chipotle employees aren’t just food assemblers – they’re actually taught to cook in order to prepare the necessary ingredients in-store, which is a skill that can be used elsewhere even if workers leave, Arnold says. “Our culture is rooted in providing opportunity to people,” which has allowed the company to largely stay out of the U.S. fast-food wage protests that have been taking place for the past year.
It’s those skills that ultimately differentiate regular fast food from the higher-end fast casual segment, which has been seeing explosive growth for the past five years. Chains such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell are scrambling to catch a piece of this fast-casual phenomenon with higher-priced premium products. Such items might be made with better ingredients, but so long as they are assembled rather than cooked, fast-food companies are still going to lag behind in quality, Arnold says.
“That’s always going to limit their ability to play at the next level.”