New York vegans have a new reason to go to Chipotle.
In the two decades since Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle in Denver, Colorado, the menu has changed very little. Early on, the chain added bowls and salads; brown rice made an appearance next to white rice a few years ago; and last year, the restaurants rolled out Patrón margaritas, which are shaken to order. “The menu is very, very focused,” says communications director Chris Arnold. “That allows us to do the items we have better than anyone else does them. That’s been the cornerstone since the beginning.”
But on Monday, the burrito-monger will introduce its most substantive addition to date: Sofritas — an organic shredded tofu braised with chipotle chiles, roasted poblano peppers, and a blend of spices — will be on offer here in New York City and up in Boston, heralding the national launch of a vegan option that the company has been testing for more than a year.
The launch is the culmination of a two-year-long development process that happened organically and deliberately, says culinary manager Nate Appleman. “When I started, we were testing out a thing called Garden Blend. It was good, but it wasn’t great. We kept trying it and thinking it serves a purpose, but we’ve never been a company that just serves a purpose.”
“What we were ultimately wanting was something that would provide another option for vegetarian and vegans but would be delicious enough for people who wanted to eat less meat and wanted to eat something lighter,” adds Arnold.
Once Appleman, who is New York City-based, got his feet wet, he started thinking about developing the protein side of the menu, and he created a chicken and pork chorizo intended to use more of the animal on the line. That item did well in the Big Apple, but the company kept returning to vegetarian options. So the chef created a vegan sausage with gardein, the base of Garden Blend, only to find it didn’t hold up well on the line. Tofu sausage, he soon learned, was even worse. “It was disheartening,” he says.
Around the same time, Appleman was working with brand director Tim Wildin on Shophouse, the Southeast Asian restaurant that opened in DC in 2011, and the duo knew they wanted tofu. “It’s a more vegetable-focused menu,” explains Appleman. And they wanted to work with Hodo Soy, an Oakland, California-based tofu company committed to the level of craft that Chipotle and Shophouse seek from suppliers. At that time, though, Hodo was small, and the product was expensive. Wildin and Appleman knew that if they were going to serve that tofu at Shophouse, it would be better to also serve it at Chipotle so that they could help Hodo scale up and price more favorably for massive orders.
The breakthrough happened when Appleman created a chili for Chipotle’s first Cultivate event, a festival that celebrates farmers, food, artisans, thought leaders, and musicians. “We wanted to serve barbacoa chili,” Appleman explains. “The restaurants get the barbacoa and have the beans, and I wanted to just combine all those things, but I added sofrita sauce, which is made with adobo, red wine vinegar, onions, garlic, poblanos, tomatoes — all these ingredients we already had in our restaurants.” The chili was a hit, and it wasn’t long before Appleman began experimenting with that sofrita sauce and the shredded tofu Shophouse was already serving in its restaurants.
That turned out to be a winning combo, and so the culinary team worked on tweaking that, pulling out honey at the last minute because it was important to them that the product was vegan. Chipotle started testing sofritas in four San Francisco restaurants, slowly scaling up its test markets.
Its launch in New York and Boston on Monday signifies the shift from a test to a permanent menu item; sofritas will soon be in every restaurant nationwide.
Arnold says this long, deliberate process exemplifies Chipotle’s broader philosophy and commitment to food quality, too. “This is amazing artisan tofu, and the attention to detail in actually making the tofu is very consistent with the attention to detail in the other ingredients that we use,” he says. And beyond that, it’s a seamless addition to the menu: “The way sofritas is made, it really takes flavors from across other menu items. It fits well within the general profile.”
Find sofritas on the line at New York City Chipotle restaurants on Monday.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 26, 2014