A little-known company supplies Chipotle with a special vegan ingredient even meat-eaters love - take a look inside

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Burrito Sofritas ChipotleWilliam Brinson

An ardent meat-lover never forgets her first taste of Chipotle's Sofritas.

In 2014, the fast-casual chain added its first new menu item: organic shredded tofu that's braised and marinated with chipotle chiles, roasted poblanos, and a sizzling spice blend.

When Chipotle offered a promotion to try its looks-like-meat, smells-like-meat vegan substitute, in exchange for a free burrito coupon, Sofritas sold out at a bunch of locations nationwide.

Today, even meat-eaters (like me) often opt for Sofritas as a healthier alternative to meat that doesn't compromise taste. People say it's spicy, flavorful, and almost mistakable as ground beef.

I recently toured the factory where Hodo, an organic tofu company based in Oakland, California, makes the tofu for Chipotle's Sofritas. Take a look to see how it's made.

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In a factory in Oakland, California, a team of over 100 Hodo employees work on making tofu products that Americans — historically, a tofu-adverse bunch — will enjoy eating.

In a factory in Oakland, California, a team of over 100 Hodo employees work on making tofu products that Americans — historically, a tofu-adverse bunch — will enjoy eating.

Many Americans know tofu as a chalky white brick that crumbles when you bite into it. Minh Tsai, founder and CEO of Hodo, set out to make tofu that's creamy and flavorful on its own.

Many Americans know tofu as a chalky white brick that crumbles when you bite into it. Minh Tsai, founder and CEO of Hodo, set out to make tofu that's creamy and flavorful on its own.

By selling products wholesale to chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen and partnering with fine-dining chefs across the country, Hodo lets consumers taste the possibilities.

By selling products wholesale to chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen and partnering with fine-dining chefs across the country, Hodo lets consumers taste the possibilities.

The tour starts in the loading dock, where pallets are piled high with bags of organic soybeans. Minh said Hodo goes through 250 to 300 bushels of soybeans per day.

The tour starts in the loading dock, where pallets are piled high with bags of organic soybeans. Minh said Hodo goes through 250 to 300 bushels of soybeans per day.

The beans travel through hoses hung from the ceiling to the first step in processing.

The beans travel through hoses hung from the ceiling to the first step in processing.

After soaking in water overnight, the beans are pulverized into a soupy mixture. The pulp of the soybean is separated from the bean's flesh to create a soy milk that's twice as thick as traditional soy milk, Tsai said. This step gives Hodo tofu products their soft, silky texture.

After soaking in water overnight, the beans are pulverized into a soupy mixture. The pulp of the soybean is separated from the bean's flesh to create a soy milk that's twice as thick as traditional soy milk, Tsai said. This step gives Hodo tofu products their soft, silky texture.

The puree then simmers. Seeing how the sausage, or in this case tofu, gets made was less appetizing than I thought it would be. The beans looked like a creamy white paste.

The puree then simmers. Seeing how the sausage, or in this case tofu, gets made was less appetizing than I thought it would be. The beans looked like a creamy white paste.

Next, the beans are poured into trays where they will be shaped into tofu blocks.

Next, the beans are poured into trays where they will be shaped into tofu blocks.

The tofu-to-be moves down a conveyor belt. At the end, a robotic arm presses the tofu into its rectangular shape, moves the tray to the side, and sends it back toward the workers.

The tofu-to-be moves down a conveyor belt. At the end, a robotic arm presses the tofu into its rectangular shape, moves the tray to the side, and sends it back toward the workers.

The tofu blocks are cut into quarters, sealed, and chilled in giant cooling tanks.

The tofu blocks are cut into quarters, sealed, and chilled in giant cooling tanks.

Hodo has about a dozen products that nearly all originate from those plain white tofu bricks, though some would be unrecognizable as tofu in their final, tasty-looking form.

Hodo has about a dozen products that nearly all originate from those plain white tofu bricks, though some would be unrecognizable as tofu in their final, tasty-looking form.

The tofu veggie burgers fold in fresh cut carrots, onions, and cabbage and are seasoned with umami-rich, ground shiitake mushrooms. Tsai said they will tempt any carnivore.

The tofu veggie burgers fold in fresh cut carrots, onions, and cabbage and are seasoned with umami-rich, ground shiitake mushrooms. Tsai said they will tempt any carnivore.

When soy milk (a byproduct of soybeans) is boiled, a film or "tofu skin" forms on the liquid surface. It's scooped up and ready-to-eat as "yuba," a delicacy in China and Japan.

When soy milk (a byproduct of soybeans) is boiled, a film or "tofu skin" forms on the liquid surface. It's scooped up and ready-to-eat as "yuba," a delicacy in China and Japan.

Yuba that is marinated, seared on a hot surface, cut into ribbons, and glazed makes for a delectable meal as part of a salad, sandwich, stir-fry, or pasta, according to Minh.

Yuba that is marinated, seared on a hot surface, cut into ribbons, and glazed makes for a delectable meal as part of a salad, sandwich, stir-fry, or pasta, according to Minh.

For Chipotle's Sofritas, Hodo sends the original white tofu bricks to the restaurant chain's distribution hubs for processing. The tofu is firm and buttery-smooth to start.

For Chipotle's Sofritas, Hodo sends the original white tofu bricks to the restaurant chain's distribution hubs for processing. The tofu is firm and buttery-smooth to start.

Tsai worked closely with Chipotle's founder Steve Ellis (who was recently unseated as CEO) to develop a recipe that would infuse Hodo's tofu with classic Chipotle flavors.

Tsai worked closely with Chipotle's founder Steve Ellis (who was recently unseated as CEO) to develop a recipe that would infuse Hodo's tofu with classic Chipotle flavors.

Read more: Chipotle just hired Taco Bell's CEO to run the company — here are the changes to expect

After being cut into cubes, fried, and shredded, the tofu goes into the kettle with a blend of herbs and spices commonly used in Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American cooking.

After being cut into cubes, fried, and shredded, the tofu goes into the kettle with a blend of herbs and spices commonly used in Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American cooking.

Tofu doesn't absorb cooking flavors as well as ground beef or chicken. The reason the tofu gets shredded for Sofritas, Tsai said, is to create more surface area for taking in those seasonings.

It simmers and soaks up the complex aromas of onions, garlic, chipotle peppers, green bell peppers, tomato, cumin, and dried oregano. Voilà — it's ready for a Chipotle store near you.

It simmers and soaks up the complex aromas of onions, garlic, chipotle peppers, green bell peppers, tomato, cumin, and dried oregano. Voilà — it's ready for a Chipotle store near you.
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