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.

Green Apple Donuts and Coffee with Barismo, CloverKND, 12/5, 10am

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That’s the new Barismo El Bosque. Grown in Guatemala, roasted in Somerville. It tastes a little bit like green apple. Sort of a sweet puckering end to a really delicious, chocolatey cup. If you haven’t had it, stop by, we’re pouring at all locations. We asked Pete of Barismo what kind of donuts would pair well with that. So Enzo’s going to attempt a green apple glaze for our Coffee and Donuts event on December 5th.

There are only a few tickets left. Your ticket includes a coffee and two donuts. And most importantly, you’ll get to meet and talk to Pete, who buys and roasts coffee in a really revolutionary way.

Get yours before Thanksgiving, and you’ll have something to look forward to when you get back…

Brussels sandwich might get a stay of execution thanks to Harvard Crimson reporter

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We work with two major distributers to get produce that we don’t have enough volume to justify sourcing directly from a farm. We were getting brussels from Czajkowski Farm through Russo’s, and then we started getting California brussels in instead.  Chris called and talked to the folks at Russo’s and they said that no one has local brussel sprouts anymore. So with a heavy heart, we decided to pull the brussels sandwich from the menu.

Meanwhile, Ivan, a Harvard Crimson reporter, was doing a story on the demise of the brussels at Clover. Ayr talked to Ivan, who talked to Joe Czajkowski Farm, who said they still had brussels!

Chris called Russo’s again, they claimed they didn’t have them or couldn’t get them, so Chris called the farm…and they have 140 cases, with another week of harvesting left!

Chris talked to Costa (another distributor) and they are accepting a delivery from Czajkowski Farm tomorrow, so they are adding on 16 cases for us to have. Costa said that they weren’t buying the end of his brussels crop because the size is all over the place, small as marbles and big as bulbs.  We’re going to look at it when it comes in on Friday (we’re closed Thursday) and make a decision. If we like the brussels, this may mean we extend the sandwich for a few more weeks.

 

Jack’s Abby buying all local malt

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We had a Jack’s Abby beer launch last Thursday. We launched Lashes, a Winter Seasonal lager. If you haven’t tried it, stop by CloverHSQ. We have it on tap.

I got a chance to chat with Sam, one of the brewers. He mentioned Valley Malt. Some of you may remember us talking about Valley Malt back in 2010. Andrea Stanley runs one of the only malt-houses in Massachusetts. They take locally grown grain and create malt. Brewers then purchase the malt through a program similar to a CSA, but for brewers.

Sam told me that they’re buying all local malt from Andrea at Valley Malt. He thinks Jack’s Abby might be Valley Malt’s largest account. This was really surprising to me. The local brewing revolution is more widespread than I thought. You can find Jack’s Abby in almost every package store in the area. You can drink them at Cheesecake Factory. And we’re going through a crazy amount of kegs here at Clover.

[Our next beer launch is coming up on 12/4: click here to mark your calendars for the launch of Aeronaut at Clover!]

“It’s expensive and breaks”

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We were touring Blue Bottle’s roasting facilities in NYC the other day (I’ll post more on that shortly), and I noticed these interesting orbs at the back of the space. I asked about them and was told that they were a new tea brewing apparatus that Blue Bottle was testing. You might know I love tea. So I was obviously interested. I asked how they work and the staff sort of moaned. They said that basically they are “very expensive and break.”

Of course I hadn’t left NYC before ordering a set on Amazon. They weren’t as expensive as I feared, and I ordered 3 to try out. We tested our current recipes and alternates. Turned out existing recipes were really tight. I made up a little nifty sheet telling staff how to use them and care for them. And I added something we don’t usually do when testing, a list to use to mark off how many uses they’ve seen. I want to know brew to break ratio to see if these are feasible.

They’re at work right now at our Harvard Square location. Check them out and tell us what you think. They fit right in line with the coffee rack, which is awesome. And really, I’ve never found anything that’s done such a killer job making tea sexy. You know poor tea, for one it’s not addictive like coffee. Two, it doesn’t come out of a steaming loud espresso machine, or from a careful pour-over set-up. Even the humble insulated coffee dispenser has mystery. Tea is normally a bag floating in water. So I welcome anything that will elevate our impression of tea. And the teas we’re buying and brewing are out of this world. They’re some of the best you can buy anywhere in the US. I’m hoping more customers get to try them if we use this apparatus. Tell us what you think.

(Yes, and I realize I very well may have jinxed our perfect record of no breaks by posting about how great these are. Let’s hope not.)

What will you find in a Winter Moon Roots farmshare?

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This picture was from the root-washing station at Michael’s farm. Some of you have been asking exactly what’s going to come in this winter CSA we’ve been talking about. This is a true deep-winter share. Every two weeks, you’ll get a bag with a total of between 10-12 pounds of certified-organic carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, parsnips, garlic, rutabaga, and potatoes grown by Michael Docter in Hadley, MA.

NEW THIS YEAR. You’ll also receive 1 package (of 12) fresh-made tortillas made from heirloom non-GMO corn harvested in Hadley and baked by Jorge at Mi Tierra Tortillas. These tortillas will be baked the morning of the share so they’ll arrive in Cambridge warm out of the oven.

Sign up for your share here. 

An artichoke grows in Massachusetts

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Ray showed us a little side project: artichokes.

He didn’t grow these for customers, but for himself, just to see if it would work.

I was still having trouble believing this. Land so good that an artichoke will grow in Massachusetts? We’re still trying to persuade Ray to grow some for Clover for a 3pm special next year. In the meantime you can support Ray and Michael by joining their Winter Farm Share.

 

Brussels sprout sandwich leaving

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One of the most magical things about our trip to see our farmers in Hadley was seeing where the fields are located. I was imagining one massive field. I was wrong.

Hadley land is gold. It’s fed by the Connecticut River Valley and it’s been farmed since Native American times. New fields are scarce. Ray and Michael’s fields are scattered throughout Hadley. We drove through someone’s driveway so Ray could show us the brussels field.

The reason brussels are so hard to find locally at volume is that they’re not a money-maker. Once the stalk is picked, it’s done. And farmers have to cut the brussels off the stalk before sending them out, which makes them a relatively low-yield crop. We’ve depleted our supply of local brussels. So with a heavy heart we must announce that we’re only going to have the Brussels Sprout Sandwich company-wide for another week (last day is Wednesday 11/26). After Thanksgiving you’ll have to become a Brussels pilgrim to the MIT truck only.

[If you want to support the amazing farmers of Hadley, sign up for a Winter Farmshare today]

This crack is the secret to Winter Moon Roots flavor

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If you’ve already signed up for your Winter CSA, read on to learn how your vegetables will be stored. If you haven’t signed up, but are interested, do so now. We started with only 200 shares and they’re going fast.

Michael Docter picks most of his roots* right before the first frost when they’re at the height of taste and flavor. He stores them in a barn during the cold months.

It’s a spotless barn. Each of these cracks in the wall is height of 1 pallet. The cracks let in outside air, and circulates it through a system of solar-powered ducts that I won’t pretend to understand. Basically Michael has figured out a way to avoid the humidity that comes with artificial refrigeration. The roots are kept cool all winter long by none other than fresh Hadley air.

*All except for the parsnips. They will stay under the snow, developing more and more sugars until they are harvested in the spring.

The sweeter sweet potato

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Remember how we were talking about those 9,000 pounds of sweet potatoes? The ones that inspired Enzo to create the Japanese Sweet Potato sandwich so many of you have been raving about? When we visited Next Barn Over the other week, Ray showed us the sweet potatoes that were headed for Clover.

He told me a crazy fact. Sweet potatoes are not sweet right out of the ground. They need to cure for a few days to develop their sugars.

Ray knew this had to happen but admitted he didn’t quite know why. I was thinking maybe it’s similar to cooking, like you’re slightly caramelizing the sweet potatoes. We are finished with those 9,000 pounds of Next Barn Over sweet potatoes (and we cleaned them out of organic red cabbage too), but we are getting a few thousand pounds of sweet potatoes from Enterprise Farm and 750 pounds of organic red cabbage from Red Fire Farm to tide us through the end of this sandwich’s run.