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.

Can CloverHSQ wait times survive the class of 2019?

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CloverHSQ has never been more popular. I’m not bragging, it’s just fact. It’s due to a lot of things, some amazing food and amazing leadership by Lynn, the manager there. I was taking orders and I could feel the excitement in line. Freshman advisors were bringing in their advisees for iced coffee, sharing this place that they had discovered as freshmen. Kids were bringing their parents after they got moved into their new houses. Students were telling me “this is my one year anniversary of eating here.”

I got a note from a customer at HSQ yesterday. It was wonderful to hear from folks like Jared who care enough about us to write.

I come to Clover 2x a day (at least 20$). I realize that summer is over and the students are back …but I basically stopped coming because I can’t even get in the door. Its great that demand is so high but sad when you can’t get the food without 30mins or 45 standing in line. I’m sure you’re aware of it but want you to know that if you stand at the front door near lunch half the people see the line – can’t even get inside – and leave. Thanks

We’re going to work super hard on killing that line over the next 4 days. I’m serious – we’re committed to super low wait times even now that students are back. Lynn, who manages CloverHSQ, has been adding order-takers during lunch (I think today we’ll be up to 4 order-takers), and she’s working on staffing up her sandwich-makers and prep cooks – so that once you do get in line, we should be able to get to you pretty fast.

Ethan, our systems engineer, just added real-time wait times to our POS, which means we have real data and not just intuition to work from. You might remember this is version 2 of something we started back in 2009. The new calculation takes the average of 3 past orders of any given item, calculates our wait times, and projects it next to the item on the menu board. So you should be able to see how long you’ll likely wait for each item before you make your decision.

I took a look at our stats from yesterday at HSQ. At our peak (12pm yesterday) the average wait time after placing your order was 10.3 minutes. But at 1pm, the wait was only 6.7 minutes. And if you can swing an early lunch, the wait time at 11am is likely to only be 3.8 minutes.

 

 

Watermelon

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Watermelon is here from Western Mass and it’s everywhere. Watermelon Fruit Salad, Watermelon Agua Fresca, Watermelon Soda, and Watermelon 3pm special.

Edit 8/30: local watermelon is done. Hope you all enjoyed the season!

Birth of the Fry-Speditor

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Judy was presenting her assistant manager project to the group the other day. Her project was to design a chart that managers can use to assign roles to each employee during a shift. See that acronym FRY-SPD? The fry-speditor is a new position that Enzo coined. He’s pretty good at creating new words.

The fryer at Kendall is so busy now that one person cannot man it alone during a rush.

So now the fry-guy or girl gets their own fry-speditor. An expeditor who transfers fried items to stations or hands them out to customers.

Fruit Salad rapid change

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If you’ve stopped by in the morning, you might have seen us cutting up fruit salad. Last week we launched a peach, cantaloupe, shiso, honey, and lemon version, which has proved popular. 

But we didn’t want the summer to pass without including watermelon in the fruit salad.

On Tuesday at Food Dev, Chris made two for us to try. The clear winner was this watermelon-cantaloupe, corn, Aleppo pepper, lime salad. You’ll see this hitting the menu today or tomorrow. Let us know what you think!

 

They are back.

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Heirloom tomatoes are in. This year we had to get them from 3 different farms in Western Massachusetts to meet our demand of 2000 tomatoes each week. You’ll see tomatoes from Queen’s Greens, Next Barn Over, and Stone Soup Farm. Each farm has their own seed stock and saves different types of seeds each year.

The heirloom tomato sandwich was the 2nd seasonal sandwich we ever served at Clover. It is so simple. Mayo, cheddar, a slice of heirloom tomato, and a bit of lettuce.

 

 

Meet Josh, our food systems analyst

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You might not know him yet, but this face is going to make a lot of you very happy. We’ve been bad about posting nutritional information. Sorry all, it’s not that we’re trying to hide anything. I think the first post about nutritionals was back in 2009 when we sent a few of our items to a lab for testing. The fact of the matter is that this is a massive job. We face an issue that most companies do not. Our recipes change.

Our recipes are not meant to be static, or ever marked as complete. We make improvements based on seasonality and feedback. We discover a better way to make falafel. We find a new source for vinegar, cheese, chickpeas. An employee notices that the cantaloupe is sweeter than usual this year and we dial back the amount of sugar in an agua fresca. These types of things have to be reflected in the recipe. We’ve been using Google Docs to house our recipes. Chris can edit. Every employee can view. But we need to get costing and nutritional information for each ingredient, and then pass them through calculations that can spit out accurate, current nutritional information.

We hired Josh 2 weeks ago. He has a degree in economics and he’s really passionate about food. And as you can see, he’s got a hair net on. That’s because he’s going to be spending much of his time in the kitchen completing nutritional information on all our items. He’ll be shadowing Chris as he makes a recipe, weighing every ingredient and entering them into the Google docs. In time he’ll also be working alongside Thadea to improve our cost structure through analysis of our purchasing. Welcome, Josh!

Color-coding system for pitas

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We’re baking something like 3000 pitas a night. Some of them are minis (for breakfast sandwiches and kids sandwiches). Some are big (for regular sandwiches). When we were purchasing pita from a bakery, we would sometimes confuse big and small pitas. Chris came up with a method of matching the colors of the racks with the ties on the bags.

A funny thing about bread racks: we noticed that most bakeries steal these off the street from other bakeries.

Flour testing

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We are one week into overnight baking, and we’ve been dialing in the recipe.

Right now we’re running 20% whole wheat from Four Star Farms, and 80% all-purpose flour from King Arthur. The little brown bits you see in the bread – that’s the whole wheat flour. The bran, endosperm and germ are all intact. If you want to bake along with us, we are selling the Four Star Farms flour at the grocery store at CloverHFI.

We’re going through a lot of flour already. We’re going to look at Green Mountain Flour in Vermont as a potential source. They purchase flour from a few small farms in Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts (Four Star Farms) and grind it into flour. They offer bolted whole wheat flour, which is an old method of creating an all-purpose-ish flour, without any of the nutrient loss associated with modern flour processing. They simply sift the flour through a screen, creating a lighter bodied flour. Because they are not rinsing away any nutrients, they don’t need to “enrich” back the flour.