Clover Food Lab: Changing the Way Fast Food is Made

At Clover Food Lab, the quickly-growing, data-driven, Boston-based fast-food chain, it is all about the food. Both the business and the operational models are focused on bringing local-sourced, fresh and quality ingredients to consumers, in a fast and casual manner.

With its six restaurants and four food trucks, a looming expansion to Washington, D.C., and a deal to carry branded items at the Boston-area Whole Food stores, Clover model is allowing the company to spread its vision among a growing group of consumers. [1]


Business Model:Clover + Ayr

Clover serves a simple menu that changes daily and with the seasons based on what is available from local farmers and includes a large mix of organic ingredients.

Founder and CEO Ayr Muir, HBS Class of 2004, decided to get into the food business as a way to have an environmental impact. “’I read about food and the environment and started researching more. I could have a bigger impact by changing what people are eating.’ He learned that meat consumption has a bigger impact on climate change than transportation and energy. Therefore, Clover sells only vegetarian and vegan dishes”. [2] He wishes “to shrink the ecological footprint of the food industry by making fresh, local, sustainable vegetarian food as common and convenient as the fare at Burger King or McDonald’s”. [3]

One thing you will never see at Clover, however, is the word “vegetarian”. Clover focus on local, sustainable and vegetarian food, but they avoid branding the company as such, fearing that consumers won’t find the same appeal to the food if they do so. Their idea is to serve food without meat in it for people who would otherwise be eating meat.

Muir, as a materials scientist from MIT, has a data-driven approach to the way he does business, therefore transforming his venture in a “lab” where he conducts the most diverse set of ongoing food experiments to always adapt the menu and test its recipes. He uses in-house technology to make business more efficient and to innovate.


Operational Model Highlights:

I never understood the concept of a “food lab” until I went to their Harvard Square restaurant and saw how the operating process worked. Clover serves Fast Food, but not in the way we are used to thinking but rather they create the food from scratch from quality, local-sourced ingredients that are in season, from the moment after you make your order, and deliver it to you in a matter of minutes. In this sense, they are serving fresh ingredients in a very fast way to consumers.

Clover also relies on transparency to promote the idea of freshness to the brand. They have open kitchens, blog posts about mistakes and triumphs, online-access to employee-training manuals and ingredients list, and even food development meetings to involve the community with the menu development.

As stated above in the business model, Clover is also extremely data driven. From the moment you walk in a restaurant and an employee takes your order with iPods that collect data that is later analyzed by Clover’s director of communications. The company tracks “metrics on everything from average wait times and order amounts to refrigerator temperatures”. [4] Ayr proudly says “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”. [5]

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Operational Model of Food Development:

Clover Food MJEvery Tuesday afternoon, Clover host a Food Development Meeting in their Cambridge location, open to the public, to develop their recipes for the company’s rotating menu, based on the ingredients that are available and in season from local farmers. They have customers and company’s management team try experimental dishes that are being considered for upcoming menus to be sold in their 11 locations across the Boston area.

Once a dish is approved in the Food Development Meeting, it goes through a testing phase in one or two restaurants. If the data recorded on that dish is positive, the dish gets served across the network of Clover food trucks and stores.

Even after the testing phase, data recording and testing never ends. The whole menu at Clover is in constant testing and tweaking based on customers demand and ingredients availability.

This operational model, which is extremely unusual for fast-food restaurants who often rely on consistency in order to provide fast turnaround, is the center of Clover’s brand. “When people go to Clover, they don’t expect the same burger and fries, they expect good food” (…) “The dining experience feels, as one Cambridge local explained it to me, “very MIT.” It looks like a lab crossed with a Chipotle, with crisp, clean, white spaces”. [2]



[1] Conversation between me and Ayr Muir, founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab, on November 17, 2015







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Student comments on Clover Food Lab: Changing the Way Fast Food is Made

  1. Great post! Thank you for sharing Clover’s interesting data-centric operating model. I’m curious for your take on how Clover could build sustainable competitive advantage over its competitors such as SweetGreen in the rapidly evolving fast food sector? Right now, getting fresh ingredients from various local farmers is one of the features that make Clover stand-out among its competitors. Do you see this feature becoming a bottleneck of Clover’s business model in terms of achieving efficiency and economies of scale? Thank you again for the insightful post!

  2. Really insightful writeup! Given how different the ingredients and processes Clover has from traditional fast food restaurants, how do you think Clover can maintain some of the same safety and handling standards and apply it to fresh foods? The 2013 Salmonella incident elicited some concerns about how the company was dealing with temperatures in their trucks and restaurants, but the transparency you highlighted let to a really passionate blog post from the CEO, which I think played a big role in winning back the trust of customers. On the innovation side, loved learning about the process of how new dishes are created – I wonder how much of that innovation is driven by top-down vs. bottom-up?

  3. Very cool! Especially like the consumer-based testing through the food labs, with constant iterations on proposed dishes. Wonder what other industries can learn from this method of product launches (they basically launch a new product every week!). Side point, but I also really like their way of handling customer interaction (which is right at the menu with a customer rep who takes orders + helps you understand what’s on the menu for the day).

    Very curious to see how they are going to scale in the future. I’ve already seen quite a few stores pop-up, how can they preserve this local attitude when they scale into a national org? I would probably go for a more decentralized method (different offerings for different regions).

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