The Making of a McTopia: Ayr Muir and Clover Food Lab
Armed with a chickpea fritter and mountains of data, Ayr Muir, of Cambridge’s Clover Food Lab, is just a few thousand restaurants short of saving the world.
At age seven, Muir decided he wanted to go to MIT, after seeing a robotics competition on PBS. Not long after, while still in elementary school, he read Thoreau and began building a cabin by hand, cutting down trees and stripping them of their bark. (It took him 15 years to complete. His wife and high school sweetheart, Brooke Dyer, a children’s book illustrator with whom he now has three children, helped him shingle the cabin as it neared completion.) At age eight, while he was boating on Lake Michigan with his grandparents, Muir’s right leg was ensnared in the boat’s propeller, which sliced through bone and muscle. A few years later, he developed cholesteatoma, an inner-ear disease that doctors feared would eat through the tissue to his brain. In all, he had 10 major surgeries before the age of 12. “Those experiences clarified the world for him in a way,” his sister says.
In 2007, Muir was working as a consultant at the high-powered firm McKinsey & Company, earning a six-figure salary while analyzing customer decisions at some of the world’s biggest soft-drink, stereo, and home-goods companies. He’d become convinced that the fast-food industry was crippling America, from the soaring healthcare costs of obesity, high blood pressure, and cholesterol to the chemical manipulations the industry uses to induce its customers’ cravings for sugar, salt, and fat. At MIT, he’d studied material sciences, and he’d gone on to Harvard Business School, thinking he’d eventually leave consulting to build a business with an environmental component. “I thought I’d do wind farms or something,” he says.
Then he encountered a UN study that changed his life. More than 60 billion farm animals are being used in food production globally each year, the report stated, and the livestock industry accounts for as much as half of human-induced greenhouse emissions. The “livestock sector has such deep and wide-ranging environmental impacts that it should rank as one of the leading focuses for environmental policy,” declared the report. And things are getting exponentially worse. Global meat and milk production is expected to double by 2050. Meat costs are escalating, with U.S. ground-beef prices up 76 percent since 2009.
The key to the entire ecosystem, he realized, was meat. “I never thought of food as being an environmental choice,” Muir says. “I [realized that I] could have a much bigger impact on the things that I cared about if I focused on food.”
Muir thought about all the burgers served each day at fast-food chains across the world. If he could change that industry, he thought, it might change the demand for meat. It might even, eventually, put a dent in meat production. A few months later, he took an extended vacation from McKinsey and started looking for a job flipping burgers.
He began by visiting every McDonald’s inside the 495 loop, stopwatch in hand and wife and young daughter in tow, ranking each restaurant by metrics like cleanliness and staff efficiency. And when he determined the best McDonald’s—a location in Woburn—he walked in and applied for a job. They turned him down. Undeterred, he sought employment at the next 11 McDonald’s on his list. He was rejected at all of them.
Finally, he filled out an application at a Burger King in Winchester. Under “higher education,” he wrote Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think they thought it was a vocational school,” he says with a sheepish shrug. He listed his current job as “consultant,” which he suspects the manager who hired him interpreted as a euphemism for “unemployed.” But Burger King didn’t ask for specifics. Neither did his boss at a Panera in Watertown, where he landed a second job. Each part-time job paid about $8 an hour. (Clover employees make that much as provisional employees. After they’re hired, they average $10.60 an hour. Muir’s managers can make as much as $118,000 per year in salary and bonuses.) On his first day at Burger King, he stunned his manager with his prowess at ringing up Whoppers. “And I was like, ‘I think I can run the computer system,’” he says with a wry smile. One day, the manager pulled him aside. “He was like, ‘I’ve had hard times, too, but this is a great opportunity,’” Muir recalls. He told Muir that he thought he might have a future in fast food.
Muir quit both gigs after a few weeks. Then, with his pregnant wife’s full support, he quit his job at McKinsey, too. Over the next 18 months, he obsessively designed his business plan. He took the name Clover from one of his daughter’s puppets. “You think of good luck and positivity,” he says. “You think of green and fresh, and so those are all nice for us. But we don’t have to be loud about it.”
As Muir prepared to launchClover, he studied the evolution of the fast-food industry. In the 1960s, McDonald’s and its golden arches functioned as colonizing outposts in an age of suburban sprawl. Subway and Panda Express emerged during the mid-’80s reign of the indoor mall food court. Beginning in the late 1990s, chains such as Chipotle and Panera began clustering around big-box stores like Target and Walmart.
In 2008, the economic landscape was much less welcoming, and Muir looked for an easy way to prototype his concept without investing a lot of money in overhead costs. A food-truck vendor Muir knew from MIT gave him an inside tip: Another longtime vendor hadn’t showed up to work in a few weeks. Muir inquired, and MIT offered him a spot on campus.
“I wasn’t trying to open a food-truck business,” he says. “I just wanted to test the menu.” But Muir had stumbled into the food industry’s next big thing. In Los Angeles, a chef named Roy Choi was about to launch a Korean-barbecue-taco truck that is widely credited with setting off a chain reaction of urban food-truck deployment across the country. Boston was no exception, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Clover has been at the center of Boston’s food-truck boom. Muir developed the bulk of Clover’s signature recipes—its chickpea fritter sandwich, its barbecue seitan—with chef Rolando Robledo, an assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University who had previously worked at the French Laundry and Emeril’s. (Last year, when Robledo returned to teaching full time, Muir hired chef Michael Sutton away from O Ya, one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants.) “They set the bar so incredibly high,” says James DiSabatino, the owner of Roxy’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese truck. “And they know exactly what they want to be. I don’t think they want to be a food-truck company; they want to be a food company.” Today, Muir sees his trucks as a form of market research: When he’s scouting locations for a brick-and-mortar restaurant, he’ll open a truck in the area to gauge interest and collect data on customers. For Muir, it all comes back to math.
And the math looks good. Muir knows his competitors’ costs are rising: Chipotle recently announced that the escalating cost of its staples, like avocados and beef, was forcing the chain to raise prices. And that story is being repeated in every corner of the fast-food sector. Last year, citing rising food costs, McDonald’s killed its Dollar Menu, and it has doubled the price of its burgers since 2008. Muir’s irrefutable economic edge, of course, is that he’s not buying meat. As his competition’s costs skyrocket, the costs of Clover’s main ingredients, such as chickpeas, are expected to remain relatively stable. His meals are cheaper to produce, and more environmentally sustainable. “Today, with five stores, my food costs are considerably better than Chipotle’s, and they might end up better for the year than McDonald’s,” Muir says. “In the course of a year, 70 percent of my dollars stay within this region.”
Of course, big players like McDonald’s are also offering healthier choices—reducing portion size and slowly removing sodium, fat, calories, and carbs from their menus. “As restaurants continue to evolve…and use better ingredients, it may make it harder for these independents to grow, because there is more of a limited demand for it,” says Darren Tristano, of the food research firm Technomic.
“It’s kind of like Internet companies in ’99,” says Rob Wilder, cofounder, with chef José Andrés, of ThinkFoodGroup, a DC-based restaurant company that will soon be competing head-to-head with Clover. Wilder’s planning to open his own vegetable-based chain this spring in DC, and says that he encountered hundreds of healthy fast-casual concepts during his research. “It’s still a wide-open territory, but the bad news is that [Muir’s] not the only one competing for that space.”
Back in DC, Muir taps his iPhone: The stopwatch stops. He’s on his fourth meal—his fourth restaurant—of the day. After four bites of salad, he tosses the remainder in the trash. When I ask him how he justifies throwing out half-eaten food, he’s ready with a patient explanation: This tiny amount of trash, he says, is offset by the huge amount of refuse that Clover keeps out of landfills every day. Muir prides himself on being rational; he’s an “engineer and a scientist,” he says, which is meant as a way to explain how he runs his business. Yet the qualities that make him a visionary engineer and entrepreneur—a healthy disdain for limits and rules, a grand and idealistic set of expectations—can also make him seem entitled and arrogant, like when he battled City Hall over truck spots, and the SoWa market over rent hikes. “I know my limitations,” he says. “I’m not, like, a really social person…. And maybe there are aspects of my personality that can put people off.”
He can occasionally be infuriatingly self-righteous. When the local alt weekly DigBoston gave Clover an award in 2011, Muir made a show of throwing it away, then took a photo of the award in the garbage and posted it to the 100,000 followers of his blog. Online comments flooded in, some calling him out as “pretentious and obnoxious.” DigBoston’s publisher, Jeff Lawrence, still holds a grudge, citing Muir’s “arrogance and stupidity.” “The guy is kind of a dick,” Lawrence wrote in an email, “and he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else in the room.” Muir stands by his principles: He thinks best-of lists are suspect— including, presumably, this magazine’s. (Please, nobody show him page 114 in this issue.) But he acknowledges he could’ve handled the situation better. “I wasn’t trying to offend someone or hurt their business,” Muir says. “But I screwed up in the way I did it.”
Muir’s analytical transparency served him well during what was arguably the company’s biggest crisis, when Clover was linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 12 people last July. Muir preemptively closed all operations and posted updates to the Clover blog about his efforts to find the source of the problem. The move drew a wave of media attention and the ire of health inspectors, who were unnerved by Clover’s openness about the investigation. Muir claims the outbreak was eventually traced to a poultry farm in Mexico—exonerating Clover, which uses only local eggs. Throughout the two-week ordeal, Muir continued to pay his employees, forfeiting nearly a million dollars in wages and lost revenue. But when he reopened, lines snaked out the door. “I think you don’t get the trust by only telling people about the things that succeed,” he says. “I think you have to tell them about risks honestly and screw-ups honestly. It’s not honesty if it’s just about the things that make you look good.”
Muir believes he isn’t just building a business, but a community, and he uses his blog to get his customers to think of themselves as part of the Clover team. “All the hard things we do are for the magical, special experience for people,” he says. He often details his real estate ventures, recipe development, and the joys of fresh produce. (After he got a particularly delicious shipment of pawpaws, he ran through Cambridge, attempting to share his bounty with local chefs Phillip Tang and Tony Maws.) “I’ve realized in the past couple of days that a lot of folks are misunderstanding the ‘food lab’ bit of what we do,” he wrote last winter. “We’re not the lab, well not just us. You’re the lab. You and us. It’s a beautiful collaborative effort.”
As our Uber driver takes us to the next stop, Muir maps out his ambitions: thousands of restaurants. Healthier people. A more sustainable planet. “These transformations, I think they have a rippling effect. Affecting culture, affecting attitudes—it’s not an afterthought,” he says. “I actually think it might end up being the big thing we do.”
Tomorrow, Muir has plans to meet with investors. Their most pressing concern is whether Muir can replicate the magic of Clover as it expands.
“It’s something I wonder about, too,” says his mother. “When he was on the truck, the experience was a little more magical than what people experience now. It was his love and his passion.”
But Muir is undeterred. As far as he’s concerned, nothing is out of his grasp. The car stops at the location where he’s looking to secure his first lease in the city. The current occupant is a Burger King. Muir laughs, and says he remembers when his manager at the chain told him he thought he might have a future in fast food.
“He was a really sweet guy,” Muir says. “I should go poach him.”