Having started the ungodly spread of pumpkin-spice everything, Starbucks isn't wont to let a trend pass it by—even if said trend is first created and then popularized by others. Witness the Unicorn Frappuccino, the duffin, Starbucks' attempt at the bagel ball, and its cereal-milk-esque latte. In copycatting these concepts, the mega-corporation has been known to piss a few people off—you know, the ones who actually came up with the trendy food in question. (David Chang famously went on a tirade against the chain accusing it of ripping off Momofuku's recipes, and earlier this year, a Brooklyn café claimed that Starbucks had lifted its Unicorn Frappuccino idea from their Unicorn latté.) A large swath of the internet also blames the corporation for everything from cultural appropriation to downright evil.
Well, friends, history is once again repeating itself.
May we introduce you to—if you haven't met it already—the Chicken Maki Roll, Starbucks' take on the sushi burrito. Now available only in Chicago, the new food offering is basically a sheet of nori filled with rice, chicken, vegetables, salsa, and crema, and it looks a helluva lot like the many other sushi burritos available elsewhere. In other words, the Chicken Maki Roll is a Mexican-Japanese fusion monstrosity—or delight, depending on your point of view—just like the ones that have become quite popular on the West Coast and have since spread to pretty much everywhere in the US.
The growing ubiquity of the sushi burrito may mean that no one origin story can be agreed upon, but Sushirrito, the fast-casual chain founded in San Francisco in 2011, calls itself the "original sushi burrito concept." Its website explains those origins: "Founder Peter Yen was determined to find a better way to serve sushi and saw the opportunity to combine two of the Bay Area's favorite foods: sushi and burritos. Peter created the Sushirrito brand name and trademarked it in 2008."
MUNCHIES reached out to Yen, who is also the CEO of Sushirrito, and he told us that the company was "flattered" by copycat sushi-burrito products and sees them as a "positive progression." Yen said that although his company owns the "sushirrito" trademark, in his opinion "anyone can offer a sushi burrito product."
He says that he sees no reason for his company to take legal action against Starbucks. Furthermore, Yen said, Sushirrito does not claim to have created the first sushi burrito; it is merely the first sushi-burrito restaurant brand. When asked whether he saw Starbucks' sushi-burrito as an act of cultural appropriation by a multinational corporation, Yen offered this statement: "Food, like language, music, and culture, is constantly evolving. To deem something as merely traditional is to shortchange continuous human creativity and innovation."
When asked about the inception of the Chicken Maki Roll and any similarities to existing products, Starbucks provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: "We can confirm that the Chicken Maki Roll has been added to the Starbucks® Mercato lunch menu at the LaSalle & Monroe and the 35th and State street—Bronzeville stores in Chicago. The Chicken Maki Roll is only available at these two stores. The new Mercato lunch menu, which launched in Chicago in April, is made fresh, delivered daily and surplus food is donated nightly to a local foodbank.
"The Chicken Maki Roll is a classic California chicken burrito with a twist—the chicken maki roll is rolled in sushi rice and wrapped with nori. The roll is filled with slow cooked, shredded chicken, fire roasted tomatillo salsa, lime crema, fresh cucumber and pickled cabbage with onions, avocado and crispy onion."
They don't sound worried, do they?