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.

Strawberry season ending

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We launched the Strawberry Broccoli sandwich 2 weeks ago. If you’re one of the people who have had their days made by this sandwich, here’s what you’re eating and why.

Paul had been looking at a chart that one of our farmers sent. It showed that strawberries and broccoli were in season at around the same time in Massachusetts.

He said to Enzo, “What if we created a sandwich that had both strawberry and broccoli in it?” Enzo was up for the challenge. He had previously claimed that he could make an item that combined any 2 ingredients, even ones as disparate as strawberry and broccoli. Phil Tang, a friend of ours who now runs Banyan, put in his 2 cents, we started thinking about Chinese food, and we ended up with this sandwich. It has a sweet/sour strawberry rhubarb sauce, fried tofu from 21st Century Tofu in JP, a slaw made with red cabbage and broccoli.

We just found out that Massachusetts strawberries are done for the season. Rather than use non-local strawberries, we’re going to be removing the strawberries from the spread and just using rhubarb for the last few days (same goes for the strawberries in your fruit salad.) We’ll be transitioning to a different seasonal sandwich next week.

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2-ingredient salad

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We went to Italy (Calabria and Sicily) on a food research trip. If you hadn’t been following that journey, you can scroll back to the posts tagged Italy. It was funny: many of the things we learned were less recipes to bring back and more ways to approach food.

We kept seeing this salad in Calabria. This one was at a casual spot on this dark road near the house we were staying at in Tropea. Plastic tablecloths, lots of families, menus in Italian, English and German. On the menus it would say “Tomato and red onion salad.” We thought it would have more ingredients. But when it came to the table it was just tomatoes and red onions. Sometimes a basil leaf, but mostly not. There were bottles of olive oil and vinegar at the table, and you dressed it with those. I can’t remember if there was salt and pepper on the table, but we didn’t even need it if there was. The tomatoes were sweet and salty on their own. The onions were sweet and crisp and melted in your mouth. They had no oxidized flavor notes.

Three things have to come into place for this salad to work. You have to have the best ingredients on the planet, at peak freshness. You have to cut them to order before each person’s salad. And you have to have a culture that respects simplicity.

We’re going to be thinking about this salad a lot this summer. How can we get our food closer to that salad?

 

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Survey Day: June 2016

If you got a survey card at Clover today, please click here to take the survey. A huge thank you for helping us improve!

 

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The paw paw of the mushroom world

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We are launching a new sandwich today with golden oyster mushrooms. Bob and his partner Mike grow these at Rhode Island Mushroom Company. He said to me, nobody uses these because they are too delicate. They get damaged on grocery store shelves and no one wants to work with them in restaurants.

It reminded me a little of the paw paw. You can’t buy it in a store. You can’t find it in a restaurant. This variety of mushroom is native to Southeast Asia. It’s related to the Blue Oyster, but it’s much less hardy. The spores of a Golden Oyster are so powerful that you can’t keep it in a room with other mushrooms, because it’ll overpower them and stop them from growing.

The sandwich has a lemon thyme mayo, golden oysters that we dredge in buttermilk and fry, pickled radishes from Next Barn Over Farm, and fresh arugula from Queen’s Greens Farm. We’ll be rolling it out to all locations over the course of the day, so check the Live Menu to see if it’s landed at your Clover.

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“We’re going to do something nobody does” What do you mean?

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I was talking to Ethan, who leads our technical development, and he said something that jumped out at me. He said we’re going to do something nobody does: show pictures of our actual food. I didn’t know what he meant. He said the way we’re going about this is that we’re having Brett (some of you may know Brett from days when he ran some of our trucks, he’s also a photographer) order food then take it down to a lightbox and photograph it.

I was wondering how else you’d do it. And Ethan pointed out that if we were a normal company we’d have food stylists. I got what he was saying, but was thinking it must be hyperbole, at least a bit, right?

But now I’ve been looking at food pictures everywhere and he’s right. It’s really radical to take a picture of the food as it’s actually served. From a restaurant. In the container we serve it in. Radical to show the food as it will be served. Crazy, right?

I’m deep in design work right now. The photos are for the upcoming Order Ahead app, also working on website redesign, and starting to try to figure out how to get signs on our restaurants. Taught myself to use Sketch. It’s pretty great. Learning Lightroom (Aperture not supported any longer). The new design tools are awesome. Bunch of change coming soon.

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Death of composting

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Yes, to take that picture I had to stick my phone in a trashcan, or more specifically a compost bin.

I’m trying to keep my cool but I’m not doing a very good job of it. Savethatstuff, our composter, is not composting the compost they pick up from our restaurants. And they haven’t been for a while (they have trouble telling me how long). And they’re not planning to in the future. And we’ve been paying for it the whole time.

To my knowledge we were the first restaurant in the country to move to 100% compostable packaging. This was back in 2010. I’d spent 18 months trying to get to that point. The last hang-up was the compostable lids, I’d finally gotten a new packaging company to develop a compostable hot lid and we were able to move to 100% compostable packaging. We were paying $0.16 for a cup that would otherwise cost us $0.03, and $1.00 for trash bags that would otherwise cost us $0.05. And we were paying about 60% more per ton for pick-up vs. trash going to landfill. We’ve spent $100s of thousands of dollars over the years on compost. But we felt really strongly about the move.

Why? If you look at our country’s current system we take all these nutrients out of the soil (as food) then throw them into situations where they can never be accessed again (landfill). I wanted to break that cycle. We thought that if we were ever going to be able to capture customer’s food waste (the bulk of the waste our business produces) we would need a single bin folks can put all of their stuff in. And that would mean the packaging would have to be compostable as well as the food scraps, so that everything could get collected.

Now I’m learning that Savethatstuff hasn’t been composting all of our compostables. They have been sending everything I’m paying to have composted, my expensive compostable bags, compostable packaging, food scraps to landfill. What!?! I asked Adam Mitchell, a Partner there, whether they are planning to issue us a refund for loads that we have paid to have composted but have gone to landfill. He said no, we’ve provided a service you paid for. This is when I lose my cool. I paid for COMPOSTING service not LANDFILL service!

OK, so what now. What do we do in a post-composting world? Well first, I think it’s stupid. I understand there are issues to getting composting done. Savethatstuff was using a facility called WeCare Environmental (don’t you love these names!). And WeCare is having issues with their neighbors not liking the smell. So Savethatstuff is discontinuing their relationship. And in the ultimate irony Adam told me that another thing that’s bad about WeCare is that they were caught sending compost to landfill in upstate NY. Uh… you mean like Savethatstuff sending my compost to landfill right now?

Anyway, there are other issues, sometimes compost in contaminated with non-compostables. This even happens at home. Sometimes I’ll find something plastic-y in my compost from years ago.

But aren’t we clever enough to solve these problems? Didn’t we figure out how to sort recyclables very effectively?

Now that I know all of this I’m going to sit down with Chris Anderson (head of food at Clover) today and we’re going to go over our options. I expect we’ll move away from compostable packaging and instead move to post-consumer recyclable.

It’s a sad and frustrating day.

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Beer hits Clover in Boston: June 9, 5pm-7pm, CloverDTX

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YES. Beer is finally approved and ready to start serving at CloverDTX! We’re launching a brand new program where brewers choose the beer we serve. We’ve picked our 6 favorite brewers in New England, and are allowing each of them to program their own tap. This means if Jack at Jack’s Abby is working on a new beer with local grain, or if Bryan from Mystic has a new yeast experiment he wants to test on a lot of people, they can send it to Clover.

The kegs go in on June 9 and we’re inviting all the brewers for the party. Join us for beer, snacks, music. Meet the brewers who will be programming our kegs for the upcoming year!

Beer Launch
CloverDTX, 27 School Street, Boston
June 9, 5pm-7pm

Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Sign up here. 

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Carrot sandwich stock-outs

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Sorry if you’re one of the customers who has tried to get Paul’s new Carrot Sandwich and been disappointed. The reason is: ovens.

We have been roasting an insane amount of carrots back at the kitchen. The sandwich has been so popular that there aren’t enough hours in the day and enough racks in the oven to keep up. The carrots are from a new supplier that Alden brought to us, Sparrow Arc Farm in the Berkshires in New York. After Michael Docter ran out of carrots, we started looking to see if there were any other organic carrots in the region that we liked.

The current version of the sandwich has a carrot habanero spread, roasted whole carrots that we fry right before serving, a feta sauce, a cabbage-honey-lime slaw, and fried farro (farro was an addition inspired by the feedback we got when we tested the sandwich at Harvard Square 2 weeks ago and people wanted more crunch and more heat.)

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Foraging for garlic mustard

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Last week Lieza, Ayr, Sara, Ryder, Lindsey and Stacia went on a garlic mustard pull at Blue Heron Farm in Lincoln. Garlic mustard was brought to the US in the 1700’s by early settlers. It was used in cooking and to treat ulcers and gangrene.

Every April it pops up in the woodland areas around Boston. The problem with garlic mustard is that it destroys forests. It grows so fast that it displaces the native greens and grasses and some people say it even poisons the fungi that plants need to survive.

The good news? It’s delicious. We’ll be featuring a pesto pasta salad tonight and tomorrow with a pesto made from the garlic mustard that we foraged.

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Rabbi Dolinger milked cows and hauled cheese blocks at Grafton

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This is Rabbi Barry Dolinger, who kashered all of Clover. Barry is somewhat of a trailblazer in the Jewish community. Google him if you’re interested. He leads a congregation in Rhode Island and one of his missions is to get better food for the Kosher community in the Northeast. By better he really means better. He won’t certify a restaurant whose labor practices and sourcing practices he doesn’t agree with. So we’re honored to have him as part of the Clover world. And when Barry kashered Clover, it effectively doubled the amount of Kosher food available in the Boston area.

At this point all Clover restaurants, trucks, catering, and Whole Foods food is certified Kosher. You can look at the certification letters at www.cloverfoodlab.com/kosher if you’re interested in learning more, or have a Kosher group you’re looking to feed.

One of the sticking points for some members of the Kosher community (for example: a Jewish school who was considering us as a daily catering option) is our cheese. Although it contains no animal rennet, it is not explicitly branded Kosher. So we embarked on a path to get our cheese certified Kosher. Last month Barry went up to Grafton and participated in the run of a Kosher line of cheese just for us. He milked the cows. He flipped and hauled giant blocks of cheddar. I think he had a ton of fun and may be considering a career change (just kidding). Once the cheddar is aged (1 year), it’ll go into production at Clover.

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