Chipotle Mexican Grill prides itself on using real ingredients to create Mexican food, and its menu includes a range of vegan and vegetarian options. Since 2014 when Chipotle introduced Sofritas as its first vegan protein option, it added more vegan items to its menu to the delight of the vegan community. But are vegans still happy to eat there?
Chipotle is one of a dozen restaurant chains capitalizing on the plant-based food trend. So you would think they pay close attention to keeping their customers happy. However, their reputation could be better. (They have also been criticized as one of the worst chains in the US by non-vegans.)
Vegan Options at Chipotle
Chipotle restaurant offers several vegan options. In addition to Sofritas, black beans, pinto beans, brown rice, cilantro lime white rice, cilantro lime cauliflower rice, sizzling fajita vegetables, guacamole, romaine lettuce, “Supergreens Lettuce Blend,” roasted chili-corn salsa, fresh tomato salsa, tomatillo red salsa, green chili salsa, flour tortillas, taco shells, and tortilla chips are all vegan-friendly.
For a completely vegan meal, customers can create their burrito bowls, burritos, tacos, or salads by choosing from the vegan ingredients above but skipping the non-vegan ones, like shredded cheese and sour cream.
However, if customers were to choose a salad, the only salad dressing currently available is “Chipotle-Honey Vinaigrette,” which is incompatible with a vegan diet. So vegans must order it without dressing or asking for guacamole or one of the salsas instead.
Not long ago, there was one more vegan protein option. Chipotle rolled out a new spicy plant-based chorizo in January 2022, featuring a blend of pea protein, ancho chile, and Chipotle peppers. But to the dismay of its fans, the item has since disappeared from menus and it is unclear if it will ever return.
But there is some good news now. In January 2023, Chipotle launched new lifestyle bowls for this year, including two fully vegan burrito bowls called: “Veggie Full Bowl” and “Plant-Powered Bowl.” The first contains white rice, black beans, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, roasted chili-corn salsa, and guacamole. The second one is “Supergreens Lettuce Blend,” white rice, Sofritas, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, roasted chili-corn salsa, and guacamole.
Although Chipotle offers a range of vegan options, it is essential to note that being vegan-friendly goes beyond having vegan ingredients on the menu. Factors like cross-contamination during food preparation can also affect whether vegans are happy to eat at their restaurants.
Is Chipotle Really Vegan-friendly?
For non-vegan eateries like Chipotle, even if a meal is made from vegan ingredients, cross-contamination can still be a significant concern for many. There are several ways it can occur.
- They use shared equipment (utensils, cutting boards, and pans) to cook vegan and non-vegan dishes. Even if they clean the equipment between uses, cross-contamination is still possible.
- They prepare non-vegan ingredients on the same surfaces as vegan ingredients, such as countertops and grills.
- Vegan dishes may contain hidden non-vegan ingredients. One example is when a restaurant uses chicken broth instead of vegetable broth or honey instead of other sweeteners.
- Human error could occur as fast food restaurant staff are often in a rush. They may accidentally mix non-vegan and vegan ingredients during food preparation or when plating the dish since there are usually no food covers on the containers designed to hold and display ingredients for customers.
Is Cross-contamination Happening at Chipotle?
Sadly, there are many precedences. We can go back to 2011 when a shocking piece of news came to light about undisclosed cross-contamination in Chipotle locations. It all started with a tweet when Seth Porges realized that they cooked pinto beans with bacon. And he was someone who never eats pork, but had no idea about it after visiting Chipotle restaurants for years. It is safe to say the communication was inadequate. Chipotle apologized to him, but it still took them almost two years to launch bacon-less pinto beans. Until then, they only fixed the communication issues by displaying the item as non-vegan.
Recently, a confused customer went to Reddit again to share her unsettling experience with eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants as a vegan. And she was not the only one. Others promptly said the same. Most commenters reported that they found meat in their order that should have been vegan or vegetarian.
“I ate 2/3 of my burrito before I saw a piece of chicken. I feel like it’s reasonable to expect that there isn’t rogue meat in my order,” said one customer.
“Just the other day, I was eating my bowl, and there was a big chunk of meat in my bite. It was the same layer as the beans and fajitas,” said another one.
While these incidents are concerning, vegans feel differently about them. Some people believe that cross-contamination is simply part of the fast-food industry.
“You should never expect your dietary stuff to be completely covered at a fast food restaurant,” said one customer. And many agree with them, saying, “When you have to get each person from start to finish in 30 seconds, food be flyin’.”
However, some customers feel cross-contamination is unacceptable regardless of the restaurant’s format or price point. “I would argue that it doesn’t matter if you have a taco truck or a fine dining restaurant. Cross-contamination should definitely not happen, especially if it’s almost $10/burrito,” said one customer. Others join in by saying, “I totally think it’s reasonable to think chicken wouldn’t be in your vegetarian meal.”
How Vegans React to Cross-contamination?
Many vegan customers understand and say, “It sucks when it happens, but I just pluck it out and keep eating. Having worked in multiple fast food companies (Chipotle included), I understand how fast-paced & stressful lunch/dinner rushes can be, so I’ll never be upset over it.”
Vegans often treat the issue of cross-contamination as more about intention than the actual presence of animal products.
One customer said, “If I get a Sofritas bowl and I see a piece of chicken in it, I don’t flip out because, at the end of the day, my receipt says Sofritas bowl. I didn’t put my money towards animal products, and I still demonstrated to Chipotle my demand for vegan options.”
However, some customers feel that the intention argument is flawed. “Okay, but that’s not really cross-contamination. There are no harmful bacteria in either item.” said one customer.
“Very few vegans care about whether chicken tenders were fried in the same oil as the tater tots, or whether a black bean burger was cooked on the same grill as a beef burger. It’s a moral stance, not a food allergy,” said another.
Based on these comments, vegans who discover cross-contamination in their food may only ask for a refund or are entirely put off by eating a contaminated meal and may go so far as to boycott the restaurant altogether and say, “If you observe a no-meat diet for religious or ethical reasons, you should not go to Chipotle.”
These are indeed harsh words. While not all vegans may take such extreme measures, it is still vital for restaurants to take the concerns of vegan customers seriously. It means making a concerted effort to minimize the risk of cross-contamination by keeping vegan and non-vegan ingredients separate and using dedicated equipment for vegan dishes. By doing so, restaurants like Chipotle can help ensure that all of their customers, regardless of their dietary preferences, can enjoy a safe and satisfying meal.
Recreating Chipotle’s Vegan Options at Home: Copycat Recipes
Many vegans avoid dining at restaurants like Chipotle. Despite the availability of vegetarian and vegan options, they prefer to stick to home-cooked meals where they can control the ingredients and preparation.
Copycat recipes allow you to recreate the flavors and textures of the classic, beloved Chipotle dishes in the comfort of your kitchen, experiment with different ingredients, and add your personal touch.
You can start by making copycat Chipotle Sofritas, which is firm tofu braised in a thick spicy paste that gives it a delicious smoky taste. Or go with Chipotle plant-based chorizo, a quick 15-min protein kick with robust, rich flavors. Then turn them into a burrito or lifestyle bowl by adding cilantro lime brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies (Chipotle), guacamole, shredded romaine lettuce, and fresh tomato salsa.
Whether it is safe for vegans to eat at Chipotle Mexican restaurant is complex and depends on one’s perspective. While some customers feel that cross-contamination is simply part of the fast-food industry, others believe it is unacceptable.
While Chipotle has tried accommodating vegan customers, some may feel more comfortable and confident in their meal choices by cooking at home or finding recipes they know are 100% vegan.
This article originally appeared on Wealth of Geeks.
With a background in hospitality and years of experience in the restaurant industry, Nandor founded My Pure Plants with a mission to spread the word about delicious vegan cooking. He believes in the importance of cooking from scratch and avoiding processed and artificial foods, making each meal an opportunity to nourish both the body and the soul. He co-authored two cookbooks titled Express Vegan Cooking and Vegan Winter on a Budget.