photo Minh Tsai

Mihn Tsai enjoys a Sofritas taco


On first glance it seems an unlikely matchup in the kitchen: a small-batch tofu maker in Oakland and the fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill. But Hodo Soy Beanery is championing its relationship with this casual restaurant empire, which chose Hodo’s tofu for a new vegan filling dubbed Sofritas. Chipotle, with more than 1,400 locations nationwide, now offers its California customers this meat alternative in its signature burritos, bowls, salads, and tacos. Think tofu 2.0 for the masses.

Hodo founder and co-CEO Minh Tsai says the two companies, while different in scale, have much in common. Chipotle, after all, dines out on its corporate motto “food with integrity” and promises fresh produce and consciously sourced protein. “Chipotle’s mission aligns with our own, which is to offer food that isn’t highly processed, is made with ingredients you know, and has outstanding flavor,” says Tsai. “It’s been a collaborative process testing different menu items over the past few years and we’re on the same page in terms of getting the taste and texture just right.”

It’s also not the first time the two companies have teamed up: They’ve partnered together on a tofu dish for ShopHouse, Chipotle’s Southeast Asian concept eatery launched in 2011 in Washington, DC, with an L.A. location opened in June this year.

Not surprisingly, the vegetarian-friendly Bay Area served as the testing ground for Sofritas, which has since rolled out to Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, and may expand across the country if it catches on in these areas. The name is derived from the Spanish word sofrito, which refers to an aromatic sauce, common in Latin and Spanish cuisines, that features onions, garlic, and peppers. In Chipotle’s case we’re talking roasted poblanos, and, of course, chipotle chiles. The organic (non-GMO) tofu is lightly fried, then shredded and braised in the sauce. Chipotle’s top chef, Nate Appleman, developed the dish in collaboration with the Hodo crew, including Tsai, who says he likes Sofritas served in a bowl, though he concedes it is a tad too spicy for his kids’ palates.

Chipotle isn’t Hodo’s largest customer … yet. Hodo’s products—which include fresh tofu, yuba (tofu skins), and soymilk as well as prepared tofu items such as braised tofu and five-spice tofu nuggets—are distributed to Costco stores throughout Northern California. The company also sells to Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, and local natural health food stores. And Hodo tofu is on the menu at East Bay nosh spots like Bakesale Betty, Cholita Linda, Ebbett’s Good to Go, Gather, Hawker Fare, Ippuku, and Ozumo.

“We tread carefully and cautiously in terms of both product development and where we sell our product,” explains Tsai. “Chipotle takes us to another level, new markets and a more diverse customer base. When you work with people who care about the craft of making food, good things can happen and your brand can get even stronger.”

Chipotle hopes the new menu item has crossover appeal—with so much flavor, hard-core carnivores may not miss the meat—as well as attract more vegetarians and vegans. The restaurant already has a vegetarian clientele who order meat-free, black bean-based versions of the fresh-Mex chain’s tacos and burritos. If the tofu dish takes off, it could mean big things for the locally grown Hodo, which started small in farmers’ markets and has grown organically, as Tsai likes to say, to a staff of around 30 employees.

Tsai, an unapologetic omnivore and native of Vietnam, grew up eating tofu. He welcomes the opportunity to spread the gospel about how good the soybean product can be when made using time-honored techniques. Tofu has long had a bad rap in America as bland, mushy white blocks packed in milky-colored water and sold to the hippie health food set. Hodo strives to recast this Asian staple, for omnivores and vegetarians alike, as a hip, handcrafted food capable of carrying complex flavors.

william feathers Sofritas Long Do
At left, Hodo Soy Beanery’s yuba master, William Feathers, finishes a batch of yuba (tofu skins). This popular product is often used as a wrap and can be sliced into strips to become a high-protein, gluten-free pasta substitute. Center: A dish of Sofritas filling. At right, Hodo soy Beanery’s tofu master, Long Do, packages the beanery’s tofu for retailing. 

Chipotle knows a thing or two about branding. The company, which was started in 1993 in Colorado by Steve Ells, a former line cook with Jeremiah Tower at the lauded and long-gone Stars in San Francisco, has had huge success carefully cultivating its image as a smart choice on the eco-conscious end of the fast-food spectrum. Chipotle uses sustainably raised ingredients without hormones or chemicals. And this summer it became the first American fast-food chain to voluntarily disclose the presence of GMOs in its products. That said, from 1998 until it went public in 2006, Chipotle’s largest investor was McDonald’s, a global fast-food corporation not known for its commitment to environmentally or ethically sound food sourcing.

Still, with more eaters seeking meat-free options, Chipotle may be blazing a trail among fast-casual chains to think beyond beef. The chain tried to go meatless before, without success: A vegan burrito was pulled from menus because it wasn’t well received by customers. And the company got flak in 2011 when non-pork eaters learned that its pinto beans contain bacon. While the company’s site has always advised vegetarians to steer clear of the pintos, in-store menus did not reflect this fact, an omission that has since been corrected.

And a heads-up to the health-conscious: Chipotle’s burritos have received criticism in certain circles for their high calorie, fat and sodium content. The company displays calorie counts for its menu items for those concerned about such matters. A 4-ounce serving of Sofritas clocks in at 145 calories (versus 170–190 for meat), before the addition of rice, beans, salsa, sour cream, and guacamole. A Sofritas salad with such fixings will set an eater back around 600 calories, a burrito with the works will top over 1,000. Waistline watchers take note.

For now, both Chipotle and Hodo seem chuffed about the new arrangement, and are happily singing each other’s praises. The main challenges that can come up in working with artisan producers like Hodo are cost and supply, notes Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. He adds that Chipotle’s food expenses are among the highest in the industry as a percentage of revenue, due to their commitment to sourcing quality ingredients. “That’s hard for a lot of restaurant companies to get their heads around,” he says. “But it’s part of our DNA, and we have a business model to support it.” Could this collaboration spark other partnerships between artisan producers and fast-food joints? Time will tell. ♣

Hodo Soy Beanery offers an hour-long tour of its facility at 10:30am on the first Friday of each month at 2923 Adeline Street. Reserve at or call 510.464.2977.

Chipotle has locations in Alameda, Berkeley, Brentwood, Castro Valley, Concord, Danville, Dublin, El Cerrito, Fremont, Lafayette, Martinez, Newark, Oakland, Pleasant Hill, Pinole, Pittsburg, San Ramon, Walnut Creek, and Union City.