Philosophy

Our food philosophy is driven by simplicity. I’d rather have you shocked by how delicious our turnip soup tastes than impress you with an exotic ingredient or fancy technique or flowery menu description.

We try to keep everything very simple, but very careful. If you eat with us for breakfast you know that we’re making the soup or salads in the morning and prepping for lunch. We don’t make ketchup. We don’t make Mayonnaise. We make just about everything else every day.

This is Fast Food. We’re obsessed with speed and constantly time ourselves. Our average serve times are around 3.5 minutes, which makes us a little slower than McDonald’s.

Many of you have been asking for more detail about the menu, so for the first time I’m gathering it all here. Enjoy!

Ayr Muir
Founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab

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Read on to learn:
– How we think about taste
– Why you might think we’re crazy if you learn how we make food
– Why our menu is tiny, changes, and we run out
– What’s so special about our drinks
– How we source our ingredients
– Who develops our recipes
– How we think about nutrition and food
– What to eat at Clover if you have allergies or dietary restrictions

 

Taste

We taste all day long. This is one of the most important roles our managers and leaders have. We’re not working with frozen, blended, factory-made, or processed ingredients. We don’t use “flavor enhancers,” artificial or natural flavors, additives, preservatives, or anything else you’d need a chemistry degree to understand. We rely on the farmer who grew our parsnip for flavor, the soil that produced our carrot, the chicken that laid our beautiful eggs. This is core to how we make food. Sometimes our carrots are sweeter, sometimes less sweet. We taste, we balance, we taste again. I can’t promise you that anything you have from Clover will taste exactly the same one day to the next. But we all work very very hard to make sure that the quality we achieve, the depth of and cleanliness of flavors is consistently unrivaled.

The other year I noticed we talk a lot about clean flavors. We started using those words without much discussion and didn’t even think twice about it until somebody asked us what we meant. When we talk about clean flavors we mean a whole collection of things. Food that tastes clean is food you want to hold in your mouth and savor. It’s not food you want to scarf down without thought. It’s food that has subtle aftertaste you enjoy. It feels great in your mouth. It smells beautiful.

We’re talking about food that hasn’t been overcooked. Clean flavors come from the first run, not from food that has been reheated or “flashed” right before service. We’re talking about food that hasn’t oxidized (common to food that is aging, think about how an apple slice turns brown). We’re talking about the lack of “off” compounds that come from sloppy cooking methods. Think about a bright yellow yolk that comes from shocking the egg in ice after boiling it for the exact right amount of time, not the grayish yolk and off flavors that come from overcooking and/or slow cooling. We’re talking about the lack of contamination of flavors (our onion cutting boards are never used for anything else). Clean flavors are identifiable. They are complex because the ingredients themselves have wonderful complexity, not because a lot of other ingredients are added on. When we talk about clean flavors we’re talking about flavors absent of chemical or natural additives. One of the reasons we make everything from scratch is that we want to leave out common additives like citric acid, fats we don’t like, and other additives that are in processed food. Not because citric acid is somehow bad, it just doesn’t taste clean. We don’t necessarily have anything against dirty food, but it’s not what we’re working hard every day to make.

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If you work at Chipotle, or Panera, or McDonald’s you might think we’re crazy

At Clover we do a lot of things unlike other fast food companies. Why? For taste of course.

It’s hard to overstate how radically different we operate vs. our competitors. The way we operate is unheard of in our industry. I mean unheard of to the point that others don’t believe me until I show them around. No, really, there is no back-of-house, everything we do is visible to our customers. At Clover we:

– Have no freezers. In the entire company. Not one.
– Change our menu day-to-day to stay in sync with the best tasting seasonal ingredients.
– Cut food as close as we can to when you’re going to eat (e.g., tomatoes are cut when you order)
– Keep your money in your region. (40-85% of our ingredients are from the Northeast)
– Use an unheard of amount of organic ingredients (typically 30-60% depending on time of year)
– Don’t EVER use any preservatives, “natural flavors,” “flavor enhancers,” “artificial flavors”*
– Make food that will improve your health (no need to tell the kids, but that food is good for them)
– Allow you to see us making your food. We have no “back of house” anywhere in our company.
– 100% of what we hand you is compostable. OK, nothing to do with taste. But it’s the right thing to do.

*This statement does not apply to the mayonnaise, and the Ketchup, which as I mentioned earlier, we don’t make.

 

Recipes

Everything we are today, every single recipe, everything we do, has been developed with help from our customers. We invite you to join those who are helping us improve every day.

Clover’s menu is in constant development. We make mistakes all the time. We work hard to make sure those mistakes are cheap, and that we learn from them. We’d rather share a rough recipe with you and ask you what you think than drive an item to final and tell you how great it is. This core philosophy explains why we got started with a truck in the first place.

To be clear, we never make food we think tastes bad. There are important internal controls. The most senior folks in the company meet weekly to discuss food. We taste, we talk about ideas, and we plan. But just because Chris, or Enzo, or Michael, or I loves the way something tastes isn’t enough. We set our ego aside and find out what you think.

If you have any comments, ideas, etc. the best way to share those with us is through our order takers. They collect all of the feedback they hear in a day and share it up. If you’re not near a location, or not the talking type, you can use Twitter, or comment here on the website.

If you would like to submit a recipe idea to Clover, use this form. We like recipes that come from real places and that have real stories tied to them. Our chickpea fritter was inspired by a falafel Ayr ate in Paris. Our breakfast sandwich was Jeremiah’s idea. Our cinnamon lemonade came from a customer who thought it might be a good idea. The Enzo Sandwich came from a salad Vincenzo’s family makes in Calabria, Italy.

 

Always changing menu and run outs

Since we don’t have freezers we work day-to-day with ingredients that have just come out of the ground, just been laid by a chicken, or just been picked. This fact defines our menu.

We have a small menu. Because we’re making everything from scratch we have to limit how much we do.

Our menu changes day-to-day. Because what is in season changes day to day, not every 3 months or 3 years.

We run out of items. We know this can mean we disappoint, but since we’re not working with shelf-stable or frozen foods we only have 2 choices: a lot of waste because we always have an oversupply or running out because we’re keeping the food fresh. We choose to run out.

So our menu is tiny, changes day-to-day, and we run out of stuff. That’s why we write it on a whiteboard, because it changes so often. It’s also why we can experiment so much with our food.

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Drinks

We’re developing a reputation for our drinks. You may have had our cinnamon lemonade, mulled cider, a blackberry switchel, maple soda, hibiscus iced tea, Barrington Coffee, or Pretty Things Jack D’Or beer. For most fast food beverages are an afterthought, a Coke or Pepsi fountain that earns high margins. We think of drinks a little differently.

Early on Rolando (who was our Chef) and I wanted to make drinks a part of our culinary conversation. So we started asking questions. Shouldn’t a great chef know as much about the coffee she’s serving as she does the sauce on the plate? Why should our sodas be made with who-knows-what? Why shouldn’t beverages be made daily? Why shouldn’t they change with the availability of ingredients? The most important question: how amazing can this drink taste?

So we started developing drink recipes right alongside our sandwich, salad, and soup recipes. We started visiting coffee roasters around the country, watching them roast, asking questions, and tasting and tasting and tasting. We started visiting New England breweries, and tasting and tasting.

I think one of the amazing things about our beverages is that while we’re not making anywhere near the beverage profit margin others expect, we’re still able to make money. We can make money selling you some of the most amazing tasting liquids. It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t think I’d call it greed, but most other food operators, fast food as well as fine dining, just don’t focus on what their beverages taste like as much as they focus on what they’re making from selling those beverages.

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Ingredients

We put a ton of energy and thought into what we source and from whom. We showcase the best items we can buy. And if something is out of season or not available at the quality we love we just don’t use it, selecting instead something that makes better sense for that time of year.

When we started we bought almost everything from Russo’s, a regional mid-sized produce distributor. I went to meet Tony Russo, told him what I was up to, and we went from there. I’d known of Tony for a long time. His produce is the best in Boston markets. He’s been around for a long time (dig up an old Julia Child book and you’ll see she thanks Russo’s for their amazing produce). Tony understood what we were up to and would call me to tell me he had amazing shitake from Williamstown, MA, or potatoes from Hadley, MA. He knows all of the commercial growers in the Northeast. He could tell us when we just couldn’t get stuff locally which was as important as knowing what we could get locally.

We still buy from Tony, and now our volumes are much larger and growing. We’ve recently started to develop some direct relationships with suppliers. We had the pleasure of serving amazing tomatoes from Lindentree farm this past season. And coming into 2013 Lindentree, one of the best organic growers in my opinion, is planting for us. This is a dream. We’d always hoped to get to this point and it’s happening sooner than we expected. We’re buying a huge amount of beautiful roots this winter from Winter Moon Roots of Hadley, VT. All of our honey is bought directly, as is our maple syrup. We expect to develop more direct relationships as we grow. I’ll admit, we’ve used items from my garden (e.g., mint for lemonade) but this isn’t common. I only harvest 3 times a year : ) Eddie who runs our kitchen has brought us some delicious things as well.

Some of our supply relationships are something of a hybrid between distributor and direct sourcing. For example, we love Chip-N-Farm eggs. We have Chip-N-Farm pack our eggs in special boxes that are labeled just for Clover. Tony picks them up in Bedford, MA 3 times a week, and delivers them to us directly. We do something like this with other high-volume critical ingredients (e.g., our potatoes, yogurt, cheese etc.).

Rolando brought an organization called Farm Fresh Rhode Island/ Market Mobile to Massachusetts. He knew of them from living down there and really wanted them to expand to Mass. They weren’t sure it would make sense. So Rolando went around to a bunch of local chefs in Boston, convinced many of them to take Farm Fresh as a distributor, and now they make the trip to Boston. Market Mobile is a Farm-To-Business delivery service. Sort of like a regional distributor, but with better technology and a more direct model, and only local. We love what they’re doing.

We buy spices from Raymond at Christina’s Spices (they also have a retail presence). There are a few  other items we buy from smaller scale regional suppliers.

We buy shelf stable organic products from UNFI. This includes flour, chickpeas, etc. UNFI is an enormous organic distributor who primarily supplies Whole Foods. We buy fry oil from large national mainline suppliers (US Foods currently).

Beer, coffee, and tea are products we sell that we have very little hand in making. So we do our best to know those who are doing the making. In the case of beer we don’t feature a brewer unless we’ve had a chance to visit the brewery, meet the brewer, and understand their philosophy. We’ve handpicked all of the beers we sell and know our brewers very well. Coffee is a similar process. We feature some of the best roasters in the world. We’ve developed relationships with any roaster we feature before brining them in to Clover. We see them roast, get to know the owner, ask questions about their approach and philosophy. I don’t believe there is anyone who has visited more brewers or roasters than those of us at Clover. It’s been a unique and really fun journey.

Similar efforts apply to our tea (herbals are grown and mixed by Mary Blue of Farmacy Herbs, green and oolong are from Asha Teas and Tea Trekker). It took me almost 3 years to find tea of the quality we wanted. We couldn’t be happier with what we’re now offering.

Nutritionals

We’re a small company but we think it’s important you know what you’re eating and part of that transparency extends to nutritional content. We’re working to create a database of the nutritional content of all of our menu items, but we’re not there yet. We have an entire page devoted to this topic.

 

Gluten-free, allergies, sensitivities, dietary restrictions, vegan, etc.

Please ask. We work hard to make sure our order takers are well armed to answer your questions. We’re honest about the fact that we may have cross-contamination in our kitchens. We do our best to provide options for a range of eating habits, preferences, and restrictions.

We hear a lot of questions about gluten-free options. Our kitchens are not gluten free. The falafel recipe does not have any wheat flour (unlike most falafel), instead we use GF corn flour. At the restaurants we have platters available without bread. At the trucks we have “boats” which is a sandwich without the bread. We are exploring a GF bread option.

We can modify most items to make them vegan upon request. This includes two of our most popular sandwiches, the Soy BLT and the BBQ Seitan.

Rhode Island Mushroom Co visit

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We’re launching a Mushroom Sandwich. We took a group of staff members to visit Rhode Island Mushroom Company yesterday. It was an amazing operation. I had imagined a dark room filled with manure and soil.

It was more like a brightly lit lab meets greenhouse. Mike (owner) and Todd (mushroom scientist) spent a ton of time with us. I learned that mushrooms can make it rain by influencing the barometric pressure in an area. They can communicate with each other from hundreds of miles away. And they can clean up oil spills and destroy heavy metals.

Mushroom cultivators have learned a lot about how to influence the environment of a growing space to create different types of mushrooms, and RI Mushroom has seen explosive growth over the last year.

We’re offering a Mushroom CSA with RI Mushroom Co. right now. Signups are closed but we’ll have another one in the winter. Every week customers get a new mushroom to taste.  And we are hard at work on a Blue Oyster mushroom sandwich. We’ll be testing our first version on customers at CloverKND tomorrow, 11:30 til sold out.

Clover + Kosher update

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Wow, thanks all for the outpouring of support. I think Ayr’s post was the most-commented-on of any post so far!

I wanted to answer some of the most common questions.

1. The HUB and the trucks are now Kosher. The products we’re going to be selling in Whole Foods later this year will be Kosher.

2. All large catering orders, and all truck catering (ex: weddings where we bring the truck to you and serve food) are now Kosher.

3. The other restaurants will be certified Kosher over the coming 2 weeks.

Thanks to Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Congregation Beth Shalom in Rhode Island who is supervising our certification and helping to make this happen. We’ll upload a copy of the certification to the blog soon, and we’ll be putting little decals at the restaurants and trucks.

This is what Kashering looks like

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I’m not Jewish. I was raised going to a small New England brick congregationalist church a couple of towns over from where I grew up. But I’ve wanted Clover to be Kosher for a long time. I had a colleague at McKinsey who kept fairly strict Kosher, and I was shocked what a nightmare it was for her to try to find food she could eat. I have no idea how many people in Boston keep Kosher, but I want Clover to be accessible to everybody and I started thinking about getting Kosher certification a long time ago.

When we built the HUB we bought special vegetable washing equipment that I thought could help with this. Now, many years later, we’re going through our first Koshering. One of our customers, a student at MIT, talked to me a couple of months ago and introduced me to Rabbi Dolinger and we started talking in more detail about what it would take. I couldn’t be happier that we’re making this work.

That’s Rabbi Dolinger on the left, Chris on the right. They are boiling many full pots of water. The ovens are all running full blast, and we’ve limited dinner service at the HUB. Sorry everybody, but it’s for a great reason!

To be honest I’m not entirely sure how fast the process works, but I’ll let you know when we’re official. We’re going to Kasher all Clover operations including all trucks and all restaurants and our commissary. That means our upcoming items sold at Whole Foods will be Kosher. This is really exciting for us all.

 

 

Strawberries are here: get them before they’re all gone

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Strawberries are in. Strawberries have a tiny season in New England (usually 2-3 weeks). We’re getting them from Lookout Farm in Natick, which is a really fun place to visit if you have kids.

You can find strawberries at Clover in:

Lemonade (every day at all locations)
Strawberries and cream (at restaurants at 3pm)
New Chinese-inspired strawberry broccoli sandwich (launching this week!)

Clover Cambros

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We’ve been working with the company Cambro who makes the containers we use. When we first got them to send somebody to visit Clover their jaws dropped. We use Cambro unlike any other customer they have. Cambro is the Rubbermaid of commercial kitchens. But at Clover I wanted to commit to a food system that would minimize waste. So when we started using our commissary we wanted containers that were reusable, that would allow us to keep the container in the system instead of throwing it away. So we have mountains of Cambro containers. They are the common container in our company.

Cambro told us last visit that they could print on the containers for us. We were psyched. So these are some from the first batch. The main reason for these was to manage what we call “onion-y” flavors. We’ve used tape in the past but it’s a mess. But basically if we ever use a container for an onion, ever, we don’t want it to ever hold anything that isn’t “onion-y.” So now these are all color coded and printed for us so that we don’t make any mistakes or have to put up with tattered tape.

It’s all sort of insider, hopefully I’ve done a decent job describing what we’re doing. But know that this is a huge deal to us. We’re so excited. And if you’re in the food industry and want an intro to the Cambro folks let us know. They’ve been helping us innovate.

Clover + Harvard Medical School

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We don’t talk about it too much, but one of the secret goals of Clover is to improve peoples’ health. We’ve had our fair share of stories of this happening, although nothing quite as crazy as Steve’s story. I was talking to Paul today and realized we had never posted about “our Jared.”

Steve, a customer in Burlington, ate with us every day for a year. He has diabetes and now doesn’t have to take insulin. His doctor asked him, “What have you been doing?” and he responded, “I just started eating at a restaurant.” He has offered to stand outside his diabetes clinic in Longwood and hand out fliers about Clover. We haven’t taken him up on that yet. But we were super excited when Harvard Medical School invited us to cater their “Treating Obesity” course today and Saturday. The truck is open to the public too. Catch us at the Marriot Long Wharf today (Thursday) and Saturday from 11-2pm.

Origins of Clover Fruit Salad

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Fruit salad on the LA highway.

This is a cousin of Clover fruit salad. I saw a street vendor in 2009 cutting fruit to order, and it was amazing, and I started to think we could serve a fruit salad at Clover.

I may or may not have broken some California laws by snapping this picture while driving. But to be fair, driving in LA is what we’d call “parked” in Boston (and it may sound like packed).

(Clover)RED

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So there’s a big (PRODUCT)RED event going on at DWY tomorrow. You don’t see us at too many of these fundraising events. There’s a reason, we have a really singular focus. We’re making the world better by serving cleaner food and that’s all we do. We’re able to achieve so much by staying so focused. But in this case the event literally is coming to us.

And I have a personal connection to RED. One of my best friends ran RED at the beginning. I was always really proud of the work he was doing. Colin, Alex, and I were all close at HBS and all went to McKinsey after school (Alex and I took a detour and worked at Patagonia first). Colin was first to leave McKinsey. So while Alex and I were still junior Engagement Managers sitting in board rooms waiting for our turn to present powerpoint slides Colin was changing the world, literally. It’s been really inspiring to watch RED develop. Happy to help in a small way if we can.

If you buy food at Clover today and use a Bank of America card, they will donate .40 to RED.

Juice clinics?

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I hate the idea of food as medicine. It’s probably why I cringe a little every time I hear about a diet or somebody talk with excitement about how great some “superfood” is.

This image is from a trip I just took to LA. It’s really funny, right? “Functional foods” are a fast growing business, and leading that pack are juice shops, and LA is ground zero. This has been happening for a long time. But check this out, literally using syringes to dispense the stuff. Isn’t that funny? And see the little shot bottles? They look like pill bottles, no?

I think my reaction is sort of irrational. I get a bit more worked up about this stuff than I should. But I believe that food can be so much. It can be delicious, connect us to one another, connect us to farmers and the soil, and our future selves. That stuff doesn’t sit in a syringe.