Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY
Fast food - best-known for burgers in bunches - is one step closer to getting turned on its head by a most unlikely influencer: vegans.
Until now, no major fast-food chain has nationally rolled out a hot, vegan entree besides veggie burgers. (Vegan means the food contains no animal products - not even cheese, eggs or honey.) On Monday, Chipotle Mexican Grill, known for its use of organic ingredients and naturally raised meat, will announce that it's making a major strides toward leading the fast-food industry into vegan territory.
Chipotle stores throughout the Pacific Northwest will begin selling Sofritas - shredded, organic tofu that's braised with chipotle chiles and roasted poblanos and served in burritos, tacos or bowls. Price: about $6.50.
Until now, the vegan dish had only been offered in its California locations. Now, it's extending the rollout into its restaurants in Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, Canada. And, if it's a hit, the vegan rollout could eventually go national to all 1,450 of its restaurants.
"We're considering additional markets this fall," says Chipotle CEO Steve Ells, who says the biggest issue is supply. He says that Sofritas already account for 5% of sales in its California stores.
Nearly one in three people who order the dish in California aren't vegans - but are trying to cut down on meat for ethical or health reasons, says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold.
About 2% of Americans said they were "vegan" in a 2012 Gallup poll. A new study from restaurant research specialist Technomic reports that 23% of burger eaters say that vegan burger options are important to them. A growing movement of "meat reducers" are trying to eat meat less often.
"Having a major chain feature a vegan entree on their menu is a major deal," says Jasmijn de Boo, president of the Vegan Society.
Millennials, in particular, "are much more open to eating in ways their parents didn't," says Isa Moskowitz, author of Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook.
She says the move by Chipotle could set off a chain reaction of other restaurants adding vegan options. Among chains already with vegan options: Subway, Z Pizza and Tropical Smoothie Cafe.
Sofritas were initially sold in January at seven Chipotle restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. They expanded to Southern California. And now, to all 33 Chipotle locations in the Pacific Northwest.
There are risks. The dish could be a flop as it expands beyond California - leaving Chipotle with tofu on its face. The chain has tested tofu dishes before that didn't make the cut.
The national view of vegans is changing, says Moskowitz. "Five years ago, you wouldn't see the word 'vegan' on a supermarket label because people used to associate it with politics," she says. "Now, it's being associated with good food."