Are Tofu Burritos the Future of Mexican Fast Food?

Chipotle will test a new soy-based filling at its San Francisco locations next month. Are rising meat costs propelling the change?

At Chipotle Mexican Grill, it's time for tofu. (Ian O'Leary/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Finding Mexican food on-the-go is easy: Just hit up the nearest Taco Bell, order a beef and cheddar burrito or a chicken quesadilla and try to forget what you've heard about the quality of its meat. For vegetarians, however, it's not so simple—but that may be changing soon, thanks to Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Next month, the restaurant is trying out tofu at its San Francisco locations. Stop into one of the S.F. restaurants and you'll be able to order sofritas (roughly "sauteed" in Spanish) in your burrito—a tofu mixture flavored with roasted tomatoes, chipotle sauce and poblano peppers. 

Chipotle has long been a vegetarian-friendly establishment (vegetarians can opt out of meat, and vegans can opt out of meat, cheese, and sour cream), but this is its first foray into soy. So what are tofu tacos doing on the menu?

Following the fall-out Chipotle faced in 2011 when Maxim Senior Editor Seth Porges revealed, via Twitter, that the restaurant uses bacon in its pinto beans in 2011, the move to buddy-up to tofu could be interpereted as a peace offering to vegetarians. Having a menu that's amenable to substitutes is nice, but offering an ingredient that's specifically vegetarian is taking an additional step.

Media have also suggested that Chipotle is anticipating rising meat prices and finding ways to save money.

In a press conference earlier this month, Chipotle's Chief Financial Officer John Hartung addressed the pressure restaurants are facing to keep up with rising costs, which have jumped thanks to last year's droughts. "While we haven't made any decisions yet, the fact that our food costs are rising, it is more likely that we'll raised prices in 2013," he said.

James Robb is Director at Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC), which provides economic analysis and market projections for the livestock industry. He says meat prices will definitely rise this year. "Beef costs will continue to rise and are forecast to set all-time highs in 2013," he tells TakePart. "Wholesale and retail prices of other meat items (for example, pork and chicken) also could set new highs in 2013."

Robb says that making a switch when meat prices soar is nothing new. "In terms of their total budget, consumers often 'trade down' to less expensive meat cuts and sometimes to different items, like from beef to chicken items," he says. (Or, we presume, to vegetarian options.) "Restaurants make similar changes and have struggled in this lackluster U.S. economy; they continue to adapt menu price points. In terms of overall food purchase, in the recession consumers shifted to eating a bit more at home rather than in restaurants. That situation has not reverted back to pre-recession spending patterns, forcing restaurants to be creative with their menus and reduce their ingredients' costs."

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures predict beef price indexes will increase by four to five percent this year. Pork is projected to increase 2.5 to 3.5 percent. 

According to the Associated Press, Chipotle's food costs are about a third the amount of its sales. Offering an alternative to meat, which the chain pays more for than its competitors, thanks to its dedication to only selling antiboitic-free animal products, could improve that ratio.

But Chipotle says that's not its driving incentive. 

The company's Communication Director Chris Arnold denies that tofu is an attempt to deal with rising costs of meat. "There is no correlation between the Sofritas tests and meat prices," he told International Business Times. "We have tested a similar item...but discontinued that test because we weren't thrilled with it."

Whatever the resasoning, whether its a strategic financial move or a hat-tip to a desired clientele, doesn't make much difference in the end (although we find it hard to believe that none of this has to do with Chipotle's bottom line). Vegetarians stand to benefit, and meat eaters have little to lose.

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