Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A fight's brewing for vegetarians' taste buds

Everyone’s buzzing about Taco Bell’s efforts to counter Chipotle Mexican Grill with a premium menu. Much more interesting is the struggle taking shape between Chipotle and the upstart Veggie Grill chain for the attention of vegetarians and vegans.
In the process, the would-be combatants are moving fast-casual menus in a decidedly progressive direction.
Today Chipotle announced that it’s begun a sales test of a tofu-based new entrée called Sofritas in seven San Francisco units. The new choice also marks a noble effort in the fast-casual effort to feature locally sourced ingredients. The organic, GMO-free tofu is supplied by Hodo Soy, a company located across the Bay in Oakland.
“Sofritas is a very different menu item not just for Chipotle, but for any fast food or fast causal restaurant,” founder and co-CEO Steve Ells in trumpeting a rare product introduction for the New Age chain. “It was really conceived with vegetarians and vegans in mind, but it’s so delicious that we believe it will have a broad appeal on taste alone.”
The flavor comes in part from undisclosed spices and roasted poblanos that are mixed with the tofu. The end result is a meat alternative that can be spec’d for burritos, bowls, tacos or salads.
About half a day earlier, Reuters reported that the 16-unit Veggie Grill chain had secured $20 million in additional growth capital from current and new investors. Those backers include Brentwood Associates, a private equity firm that’s no stranger to the restaurant industry (it also holds a stake in Zoe’s Kitchen.)
One of Veggie’s points of difference is a plant-based meat alternative that fans swear could rival burgers or chicken in its mainstream appeal.
It’s purely a coincidence, I’m sure, that all 16 of Veggie’s current units are located on the West Coast, or the same general region where Chipotle is testing its meat alternative.

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