Ask any food entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area about the biggest success stories of the past few years and it's almost guaranteed that Hodo Soy will be one of the first companies they list. Founded eight years ago by Minh Tsai, a former investment banker and management consultant, Hodo Soy Beanery makes tofu products—tofu, soymilk, yuba, and ready-to-eat options—with non-GMO, organic beans.
Hodo products have quickly grown in popularity. They were once sold only at farmers markets; today, they're now available at grocery stores throughout the Bay Area. Tsai also acts as a "tofu consultant" to local chefs, teaching them the best way to use Hodo products in their dishes. For the past five years, Hodo has experienced 75% growth annually. There's one simple reason why: Hodo is hands down tastier than 99% of the tofu products you'll find in the grocery store (I haven't yet found the 1% that's better, but you can never be sure).
But Tsai's vision doesn't end with his products becoming a cult hit in California. He always wanted to spread the good word about tofu far and wide. In early 2013, he took the first steps by bringing Hodo products to Chipotle restaurants. Today, Chipotle's Sofritas—a shredded organic Hodo tofu concoction braised with roasted poblanos, chipotle chiles, and spices—is available at locations in select states across the U.S. and in Vancouver. If you don't have it at your Chipotle, you will soon.
In October, I took a trip to the Hodo factory in Oakland to take a look at the place where all of Chipotle's tofu emerges. The sad scarecrow featured in Chipotle's recent anti-factory farm ad would probably approve of what I saw (no penned up animals here!).
The first thing that's striking about the Hodo factory is its size. At 12,000 square feet, the beanery isn't tiny, but it hardly seems like the kind of space that could service the hundreds of Chipotle restaurants in North America (Sofritas will be sold at 600 Chipotles by the end of the year). Tsai says he can handle projected demand—in the near future, at least. "We need to control our growth," he says. But at some point, there "may be an opportunity to build a production facility close to the location of the final dish" served at, say, a New York City Chipotle location.
The whole factory is tinted beige, with vats and tabletop containers of tofu sprinkled around the place. Tsai directs my tour group's attention to the stations where workers are making yuba, which he calls "the sashimi of tofu." In Hodo's tofu-making process, organic beans are ground into a slurry and heated up to 200-plus F, turning them into soy milk. The milk morphs into tofu upon adding a coagulant. There is a cream found on top of the soy milk when it's boiled—and that's yuba, also known as tofu skin. Removing the cream is a sensitive process. "There is no machine to make this," says Tsai. As such, yuba is considered a delicacy—and it's not found in Chipotle's Sofritas.
Before the Sofritas dish was introduced to the world, Tsai spent over a year working with Chipotle chefs to get the recipe just right. It's hard to insert flavor into firm tofu (it's packed with water), so the firmer tofu used in Sofritas is ground up to maximize its surface area, increasing the number of nooks and crannies where flavor can sink in.
Danielle Winslow, a Chipotle spokesperson, explains that the Sofritas are designed to have crossover appeal—it's probably the default option for vegetarians at Chipotle, but 30% of customers who order Sofritas these days previously ordered meat options. So how does it taste?
As the resident of a city with incredible burrito options, I have a skewed perspective on Sofritas: I've had plenty of tasty vegetable and tofu-filled burritos at local businesses throughout the years, and generally don't set foot inside Chipotle unless I'm out of town. The existence of Sofritas won't change that. The item is flavorful and filling—it's just too salty (a four-ounce serving has 710 mg of sodium, compared to 370 for chicken). Still, having Sofritas in a burrito is a better option than the rice, beans, and lettuce that vegetarians are usually offered at burrito joints.
The point is you can eat Sofritas and feel good about where the ingredients came from—a theme that's increasingly part of Chipotle's brand messaging, from the anti-factory farm ad to the company's recent announcement that it's phasing out GMO ingredients.