Clover Food Lab: Helping Fast Food Turn Over A New Leaf

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Posted January 20, 2014 by Heather Kapplow in Business
Courtesy of Clover Food Lab

Lucky Clover

If you’ve ever been hungry for something fresh, fast, and delicious near South Station or Park Street and found your way to a Clover Food truck, you know what being lucky feels like.

Ayr Muir, CEO and founder of Clover Food Lab has had some fantastic luck, too. His first downtown truck can be credited for starting the food truck program that has since spread like wildfire—or hand-churned butter—throughout the Boston area.

When the “lab” started their food experiments in Cambridge, there had been no new food trucks in Boston in 25 or 30 years, says Muir. He hadn’t even considered a Boston truck until he was approached by representatives from the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The Conservancy thought that having great fast food available might make it more obvious that the newly rehabilitated space was public parkland, meant for everyone’s use, so Clover was invited to set up shop in Dewey Square.

Mayor Menino Eating at Clover Food Truck

Mayor Menino eating at Clover Food truck. Photo courtesy of Clover Food Lab.

“We were attracting a lot of attention, so Mayor Menino came. He started eating with us a couple of times a week and then sending his aides to get food.”

The Mayor was more impressed than Muir realized. At a recent panel, where Boston’s Food czar Edith Murnane was asked how Boston’s food truck program developed, Muir was pleasantly surprised to hear her response: “Mayor Menino ate at the Clover food truck. He loved it and came back to the office and said we should have a food truck program.”

Saving the Planet, One Sandwich at a Time

Some people go into the restaurant business because they love food. Others, because they love business. Not Muir. He got into the restaurant business because he loves the planet.

“I always wanted to do something addressing environmental issues,” he explained during a busy lunch hour at one of Clover’s sit-down restaurants. “I studied structural materials at MIT, thinking I’d do green building. And I worked at McKinsey & Company because I was interested in green energy. Then I read an article on the connection between food and the environment.”

The article in question, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, caused Muir to rethink his entire approach to improving the environment.

“The top four contributors to greenhouse gases are energy, building, livestock, and transportation. There are smart people working on everything except livestock.” Engineering-minded Muir did some calculations to assuage his skepticism and decided that he could “have more impact by changing what people eat than I could building wind farms.”

But, Really, It’s About the Food

He claims to have gotten into fast food for ethical reasons, but there’s no hiding the passion Muir has for the food itself. For example, he brims with enthusiasm for Brussels sprouts.

Clover Food Lab's tomato soup.

Clover Food Lab’s tomato soup. Photo courtesy of Clover Food Lab.

“We just approved a new seasonal sandwich yesterday that I’m really excited about—a Brussels sprouts sandwich. It’s so good! It’s got a sour cream Dijon aioli spread, and then naturally smoked Grafton Cheddar. We’ve tossed the fried Brussels sprouts in some za’atar, so they’re crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. There’s some lightly pickled cabbage and crushed hazelnuts. The hazelnut flavor goes so well with the Brussels sprouts flavor—it’s an amazing combination.”

“Most restaurants that dabble in organics are 10 percent or 15 percent organic. We are 40 percent to 60 percent. Organic carrots taste so different from other carrots, so we only buy organic carrots,” says Muir. But he buys nonorganic eggs. He can get them fresher. “The thing driving all of our decisions is taste. We really want food to taste fantastic. That trumps everything.”

So Where Do I Get Me Some?

There’s still a Clover food truck in Dewey Square. If you stop by this location you’ll be greeted by one of Clover’s earliest employees, the ebullient Vincenzo “Enzo” Pileggi, one of two former chefs from the Four Seasons who help shape Clover’s menu and spirit. This truck also hosts a super lo-fi outdoor film screening series on summer nights, projecting 1980s classics on the non-business side of the truck. Picnic dinners are available from the business side, the meals carefully calibrated to complement the films.

Park Street Clover Food Truck

Park Street Clover food truck. Photo courtesy of Clover Food Lab.

A Clover Food truck at Park Street manned by Julian Weiss feeds the State House, tourists from around the world, and folks engaged in all kinds of charitable events who pass through the Boston Common while raising money and awareness. Muir has worked this truck in the past himself and finds it a quirky location. “Public events happen once or twice a week. There is always something out of the ordinary going on, which is really not the case at any of our other sites.”

Muir usually keeps the trucks open year-round, but this year they’ll close for January and February. “Last year we had two restaurants. This year we have five.” He says it makes more sense to incorporate truck staff into the newest restaurants for the slow part of the food truck season.

Any plans for a brick and mortar Clover Food Lab in the Downtown Boston area? “We would love to do a restaurant there. I don’t have any restaurants in Boston yet, but it’s not for lack of effort.” Muir says, so far, it has been easier to find properly zoned, well-located space in the right price range in Somerville, Cambridge, Brookline, and Burlington.

“But we’ll keep looking,” he reassures me. “We’ll find something eventually. Park and Dewey are two of our favorite spots to operate the trucks.”

When he finds the perfect Downtown location for a restaurant, Muir promises it will also act as a farm share pickup for locals. In the meantime, he has some ideas about what you can eat in January and February. “The two fast-food gems of Downtown Boston are Guru The Caterer’s D’Guru Restaurant and Gene’s Flatbread Cafe. Guru, in my opinion, has the best Indian food in the Boston area.”

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