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 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.

Blueberry buttermilk donuts

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Enzo wanted to celebrate the Barismo folks being in the house on Friday. He made our buttermilk donuts and made a blueberry glaze with the blueberries we’re getting from Hadley right now.

Chris and Pete of Barismo Roasters were by to talk about the Barismo coffee we’re serving right now from the Kochere region of Ethiopia.

If you joined at the coffee tasting, you got a pair of these donuts with your coffee. We’re going to be doing another coffee and donuts event with Barismo at Harvard Square on Friday morning. There are a few tickets still left, sign up here.

Coffee and donuts this month with Barismo roasters

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We’re going to be hosting Barismo at CloverHSQ and CloverKND for a series of coffee tastings to celebrate an amazing new batch of Kochere from Ethiopia.  I heard Tracy and Enzo are making donuts for everyone who comes.

KND, Friday 8/22, 9:30am

HSQ, Friday, 8/29, 8am

That picture is of Clover staff touring Barismo’s new roasters. Barismo recently moved from a tiny facility in Arlington to a new space within Aeronaut Brewing in Somerville. It used to be an envelope factory back in the mid part of this century, and it’s huge. On one side of the room there were tons of bags of coffee, representing countless hours of sourcing, tasting at origin, dealing with customs agents. On one side was a beautiful refurbished coffee roaster. Pete was really excited about the fact that the gas line at this new facility is much stronger than at their old facility, and he can actually taste the difference in the final coffees.

Join us, tickets are going fast!

 

Jalapeno soda

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I’ll admit more than a little skepticism about this one. Sometimes ideas come to our Food Development meetings that seem… well… ideas we’re not sure are going to work. But we taste everything. And sometimes I’m spectacularly wrong. The first time I remember this happening was with cinnamon lemonade. An employee wanted to make cinnamon lemonade. I thought that sounded awful, but said let’s just make sure we don’t make too much. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, or luck, or both. And we stumbled into this amazing territory of spice lemonades (star anise is one of my favorites).

Craig, of Clover KND, had this idea for Jalapeño soda. Those little peppers are starting to hit harvest. And if you’ve had a good fresh jalapeño you may have noticed that alongside the heat there’s a beautiful fruitiness.

This soda is a little hot, but not too much. And it has an awesome fruit quality. It’s really amazing. Showing at Clover Kendall and elsewhere soon. Thank Craig! and bring your crazy ideas by on Tuesdays, 3pm, at the HUB. Open to all.

Join us for Food Dev

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Our Food Development meetings happen every Tuesday at 3pm at the HUB. They’re open to the public. You can sit in and listen and taste. Or you can bring a sample of something you think we should try. Next meeting is going to focus on ideas for summer salads that use all the produce we’re getting from farms right now (think tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, scallions, melons). We’re also going to taste the second iteration of a sandwich that Sharron, one of our kitchen employees, developed based on Indochinese food he grew up eating in India. And as always there’ll be new coffee and beer to try.

Email Lucia (info@cloverfastfood.com) if you want to join.

 

 

You can call it the Massimo

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Enzo wanted to create a sandwich that celebrates 3 ingredients that are in season at the same time: red peppers, summer squash, and cabbage.

We’re jokingly referring to it as the Massimo. That’s Enzo’s younger brother. And it’s true: the sandwich is the slightly healthier version of the Enzo sandwich you all might have loved this winter.

Sweet, tangy pepper relish with lots of coriander, two slices of Grafton 1-year cheddar, thick-cut summer squash, and a fresh cabbage slaw with lots of parsley. Almost 100 percent of the ingredients are locally sourced – from Next Barn Over, in Hadley, MA (a relationship we’ve been working on for several years). The Italian red peppers are from Next Barn Over, squash from Next Barn Over, cabbage (when we can) is from Next Barn Over. And the cheddar is from Grafton, VT.

Arrivederci Panelle!

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The Panella is on its last days. You can get it today and tomorrow, and then it’s gone until this time next year.

It’s been a wild ride. We caused a stock-out of chickpea flour at Christina’s, where we buy our spices. We made a lot of people very happy. But we also screwed up the sandwich more than a few times. (Please, if you had a panella you didn’t love, reach out. We’ll make you right again.)

So what’s replacing the Panella? We’re moving to one of our simplest and most popular sandwiches of all time. Any guesses? First person w/right answer gets theirs free on Wednesday.

Why is it called Eggplant?

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You know what this is? White and light purple eggplant. It means we’re buying heirloom eggplant from Massachusetts farms. Eggplant is one of a few items we serve that’s not sourced locally. Normally it’s shipped to us from South America, sometimes California.

But every year around this time we get to enjoy eggplant that hasn’t made such a journey. And it turns out there are all types of eggplant. It comes in many shapes and sizes. If you look closely you’ll see 5 slices of white eggplant in this picture. All of a sudden the name “Egg” plant makes a lot more sense.

Chris reported to me this week that we’re over 85% locally sourced ingredients right now. That’s nuts. And while we normally focus more of the hard stuff (hitting 40% local in April), this time of year is undeniably exciting for us all. Shipments are rolling in from local farms and distributors of local products. And it’s all so beautiful and delicious. Enjoy while you can!

I think our coffee can be better

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The other week we joined George Howell to taste new coffees. Tasting with George Howell is amazing and the coffees were surprising and beautiful. Chris who runs our food set this up, two of his managers had a chance to join, as well as Sean who is going to run our DC region.

We just brought one of George Howell’s coffees in last week: Karatu AB. Everybody has been loving it and you can try it this week at any of our restaurants or trucks. It tastes sort of like jam to me, berry notes but dark. Maybe a bit like plum jam. Tell us what you think.

I had to run off to a flight to DC right after this tasting, but I asked George if he’d help us re-work our coffee program. We’ve put a massive amount of research into our current coffee program. When we started coffee at Clover 5 years ago I met George at this same spot in Acton and asked really stupid questions. I didn’t even know who he was or how important a role he has played in the industry, or that he was the inventor of the Frappucino. Since then we’ve visited nearly 20 roasters across the country and asked many more questions. We rotate in those that we love. We’ve tasted every coffeeshop we can find in every major city. And second to Blue Bottle, I don’t think there is anybody in the country with more experience serving pour over coffee. We’re talking more than a million cups of pour over coffee.

Each day we hear somebody tell us they just had the best cup of their life. I love hearing this, but I think we can do better.

In particular I’m not happy with the variability of our iced coffee. I haven’t wanted to do cold brew because I’m afraid of lethal doses of caffeine. OK, maybe not lethal, but make-your-hands-shake extreme. So maybe there is a way we can do cold brew with less caffeine. At home I’ve started making hot coffee with less grounds. When we started our portioning was 1/2 what we saw Blue Bottle doing (they were pouring 48grams for a 12 ounce cup, I have it on video, crazy!). But at this point I think we’re actually a bit heavy in the dosing department, using 25 grams where others would use 15 grams.

Of course, these sorts of adjustments need to be thoughtful and deliberate, and tested over and over with customers. Don’t expect this change to happen overnight. But if you’re at one of our restaurants in the coming months don’t be surprised if we offer you a sample and ask for some feedback. You may even see George around helping us figure out what the future of pour over should look like. We’ll all be in good hands.

This coffee is awesome.

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That was what I said this morning while sipping this coffee at Harvard Square. We’ve admired Colectivo from afar for a while, back when their name was Alterra. Ayr visited Alterra back during the “Custard or Bust” tour of Milwaukee, and loved them. But we could never serve their coffee here. There was a licensing agreement that prevented them from selling to the East Coast.

This is the second coffee of theirs that we’ve featured. It’s a Colombian coffee, from hundreds of small farmers in the southwestern part of the country. Sweet, mild, round. I really love it.

We’re working on setting up a coffee tasting with these folks next time they’re on the East Coast. Stay tuned.

Goodbye Maine tomatoes, hello Mass field tomatoes

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The Massachusetts tomato season is a short one. So from September to June, we rely on an amazing group of people up at Backyard Farms in Maine, who grow tomatoes under a giant glass box, in a greenhouse whose heat is powered by melting snow.

But from July to September, we get to taste field tomatoes right from our own state. Chris got the word from our farmers that Massachusetts field tomatoes are about to be ready.

Get ready for Tomato sandwiches, fried green tomatoes, tomato salads, and gazpacho!