Chipotle Mexican Grill announced on Monday it would offer a vegan menu item, the first from a national fast-food chain that is not a salad or veggie burger.
Testing in select markets, the Sofritas organic tofu dish sells for approximately $6.50 and, similar to chicken or steak dishes, may be mixed with rice and beans in a bowl, taco, or burrito wrap. The retailer first introduced the item at seven San Francisco stores and is now testing it in Oregon, Washington, and in Vancouver, Canada.
If successful, the chain will sell the tofu dish in all 1,540 of its U.S. restaurants.
"Where we offer it, it already accounts for 4-5 percent of sales," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told reporters. "We don't have any specific timeline but we are definitely considering making it available in other markets by the end of the year."
The new menu item conforms to the strictures of veganism, the consumption of a vegetarian diet restrictive in animal products of any kind, including, dairy, eggs, and honey. Approximately five percent of Americans are vegetarians while two percent report eating a strictly vegan diet, according to a Gallup poll last year. Additionally, nearly half of Americans occasionally eat a vegan meal, such as a tofu dish, according to a poll by Harris.
Chipotle hopes to make sales among that group of consumers, too, who may find the spicy vegan meal healthy and tasty — as a lark, without the commitment.
Increasingly more Americans turn to a vegetarian or vegan dish while dining out, when presented with typically unhealthy restaurant fare, according to Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group. Still others may choose a restaurant offering vegetarian choices as the compromise among a group of diners with one or two "special needs" customers.
And Chipotle wants to be that compromise, whether for coworkers jaunting from the office for lunch or a loosely knit group of young urban adults — and more than likely one of them is also looking for something "gluten-free," which is also possible at Chipotle.
"When a group of people go out, it's more and more likely that one of them will be vegetarian, so the group has to choose a place that has at least one vegetarian option on the menu," Stahler said. "You have to be able to please everyone in the group or they can go somewhere else."
Experts say people can reduce the risk of chronic disease by eating more fruits and green vegetables, though veganism alone is not necessarily the answer, according to nutritionist and registered dietitian Cynthia Sass.
"There are so many vegan products on the market now that it's easy to be what I call a 'junk food vegan,'" Sass said. "Years ago vegans had to make most of their meals from scratch and rely on whole foods like lentils, beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
"Today there is an endless supply of highly processed vegan foods, from faux pepperoni pizza and hot dogs, to cookies, candy and ice cream," she said.
A vegan diet not including fruits and vegetables may not confer more health benefits on practitioners, she said.
Chipotle's tofu dish with beans and rice — hold the cheese and sour cream — contains 452 calories, compared to 475 calories for the steak or chicken versions, but also contains less cholesterol.