The Making of a McTopia

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.

By | Boston Magazine |
clover food lab

Photograph by Mark Fleming

Ayr Muir is hungry, and in a hurry.

It’s barely noon on an overcast June day in Washington, DC, and as he ducks into Chipotle’s new concept chain, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, Muir whips out his iPhone and starts its stopwatch. The seconds tick by as he counts the heads of the customers ahead of him in line: 17. When he picks up his rice bowl from the counter, he stops the timer—nine minutes, 30 seconds—then does some quick math out loud. ShopHouse is serving two customers per minute, he says, and their average meal ticket is $11—so Muir figures they’re taking in around $1,000 per hour.

A satisfied look settles on his boyish face: He’s winning. Muir knows that Clover Food Lab—his quick-growing, data-driven, Cambridge-based fast-food startup—can process six customers per minute, three times as many as this place. And he’s just getting going. Over the course of the day, stopwatch in hand, Muir will consume a taco from a truck, four bites of a salad at Chop’t, a bowl of ramen noodles, at least three pour-over coffees, a slice of dessert pizza, a half-dozen plates of Asian tapas, a gin cocktail, and several glasses of rare wine at Doi Moi. All the while he’s closing deals, scouting locations, and—most important—measuring himself against the competition.

He has been doing this for years, since before he launched Clover’s first food truck back in 2008. Clover is up to six trucks now, plus five brick-and-mortar restaurant locations. A sixth restaurant will soon open in Central Square, and the first of several DC locations is scheduled to debut in the fall. A new partnership with Whole Foods rolls out this month, in which “Clover to Share” coolers will be installed in six supermarkets across Massachusetts. Muir envisions an asymmetrical nationwide chain, in which you can get Clover’s fresh, local, and seasonal food at a truck, a restaurant, a supermarket, or a kiosk.

Armed with an extraordinary business plan and a cryptic motto—“Everything Will Be Different Tomorrow”—Clover has been growing at a feverish pace. When he opened his first restaurant, Muir scrawled a manifesto on the wall in black paint: “This is a prototype,” he wrote in bold letters. “We will screw something up. We’ll screw many things up. Tell us when that happens.” This philosophy is all part of an elaborate feedback loop that Muir has designed to engage his patrons with his staff, and with one another. Sometimes, customers complain that there’s no salt on the tables. That’s by design—partly because Muir doesn’t think it’s healthy, and also because, if enough customers ask for salt, it’s a sign that his recipe needs tweaking. “I like the friction of it,” he explains.

Muir tracks his customers’ behavior relentlessly, both in his restaurants and on social media. He monitors every Yelp review, tweet, and Facebook mention; sends out surveys; and crunches the data: On any given day, 10 to 20 percent of Muir’s customers are new faces. If you eat at Clover once, you’re highly likely to come back within a month. Once you’re in, you’re hooked: Twenty percent of the chain’s customers eat at Clover an astounding six times per week. Muir likes to tell the story of one Clover fan who offered to stand outside the building and tell passersby that his insulin levels dropped after he began eating Clover meals three times a day. Clover’s patrons skew young and highly educated, and if you are one of them, there’s a 40 percent chance you’ve told 10 or more people about the chain. (This is essential to Clover’s model, since Muir refuses to advertise.) Muir also knows that if you’re sitting in his restaurant, there’s a 60 percent chance you’ll be having a conversation about food. Most people who eat at Clover live or work within a five- minute walk of the chain’s locations, and Muir says his customers report in surveys that having a Clover nearby dramatically increases their daily happiness. “It sounds weird but it’s true,” he says, nodding in a way that makes the statement seem self-evident. “Adding Clover can make people happier, and taking it away can make them less happy.”

The only thing bigger than Clover’s buzz is Muir’s ambition. “We want thousands and thousands of restaurants,” he says, and he expects Clover to one day be “more profitable than Chipotle and bigger than McDonald’s.” He may have only a dozen locations, but Muir seems to be the right person with the right idea at the right place at the right time: Food startups are suddenly hot investments, raising tens of millions in venture capital. “He’s got the mind of an engineer, the heart of a social entrepreneur, and the personality of an artist,” says Dan Heath, the bestselling coauthor of the business books Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick and a friend of Muir’s from Harvard Business School (he was one of Clover’s first investors). “I think of Ayr as sort of the Steve Jobs of food.”

That’s a good analogy, except for one thing: Ayr’s ambitions are much, much bigger.

Muir, an MIT-trained engineer, doesn’t just want to make a ton of money in the fast-food business, or even just create a lifestyle brand. To him, Clover is a grand experiment in changing humanity’s most destructive habits—and, just maybe, a way of saving the planet.

 

Muir is tall, and has a calm, thoughtful demeanor. He doesn’t engage in the startup-speak prone to entrepreneurs, though he does have some of their trappings: He drives a Mini Cooper, carries a Filson bag, does yoga three or four times a week, and rides a BMW motorcycle. He can seem a bit aloof at times, and in some ways, so can Clover Food Lab.

The aesthetic is laboratory chic: sleek verging on sterile. The design of both the trucks and the restaurants, by the local architecture firm Single Speed Design, allows natural light to filter in, with massive windows built into the trucks and floor-to-ceiling glass in the restaurants, like an Apple Store. All-white walls are decorated with crayon sketches patrons have made on the reams of butcher-block paper used as place mats. Flat-screen monitors display the real-time availability of each menu item in a font based on Muir’s handwriting.

On a busy Tuesday morning this spring, Muir stands on a wooden bench in the center of his Harvard Square restaurant—his first brick-and-mortar eatery and the site of Clover “world headquarters,” according to the sign on his office door. He’s in a T-shirt, jeans, and white Converse high-tops, and his light brown hair flops forward like a skater boy’s as he snaps photographs of a “Clover to Share” cooler, a test run for the company’s takeout partnership with Whole Foods.

Around him, customers filter in; some of them look disoriented. At Clover, there are no cash registers, no photos of menu items, and no queue to speak of. When you’re ready to order your chickpea fritter sandwich, leek-and-cheddar-stuffed popover, or cinnamon-spiked lemonade, you just walk up to the order taker, Azeb Zegeye, a young woman in a Clover trucker’s hat, standing in the center of the room. With each encounter, Zegeye engages in Clover’s routine call and response: “Have you eaten here before? Well, welcome back. Have you tried our lemonade? Here, have a sample.” Her patter doesn’t sound scripted, but it’s designed to aggregate specific information for later analysis. She enters all answers into an iPod Touch app built by Muir—another way of monitoring and studying his customers’ habits. You can watch your sandwiches being prepared behind a low silver counter. The kitchen staffers wrap them in paper, in keeping with Muir’s commitment to a zero-waste, all-compost restaurant. And when you’re handed your food—there are no trays—you can eat at one of the restaurant’s long, communal wooden tables.

One thing you’ll never hear Zegeye say is the word “vegetarian.” Clover doesn’t serve meat, yet Muir’s 200 employees are specifically instructed not to use the V-word, and have been hired, in part, on the basis of their appearance: They can’t fit the “wimpy, meek, weak associations people have” with vegetarians, Muir says.

It’s a strategy that plays on our subconscious: Developmental psychologists have found that if we’re told something is healthy, we’ll find it less delicious. Shortly after he opened his first truck, Muir served Evelyn Kimber, the president of the Boston Vegetarian Society. “I asked him why they don’t identify as vegetarian,” Kimber recalls, “and he told me they want to present the food as good food.” Muir was more blunt in an early interview with MIT Technology Review. The reason Clover doesn’t call itself vegetarian, he told the magazine, is “because no one will eat it if we do.”

It’s the central paradox of Muir’s vision: The transformative power of Clover lies in its menu being entirely meat-free—yet Muir believes the success of the chain hinges on keeping that distinction very, very quiet. His favorite stat is that only 10 percent of Clover’s customers identify themselves as vegetarians.

Not only does Muir avoid using the words “vegetarian” and “organic” when describing his food, he also avoids vegetarian staples like eggplant Parmesan and grilled zucchini. Muir regards those dishes as cop-outs. “A portobello [sandwich] is just an easy way out,” says Enzo Pileggi, a former chef at the Four Seasons who manages Clover’s Kendall Square location. “We want people to say, ‘Wow.’”

Ed Doyle, the president of the Cambridge-based RealFood Consulting, who works with local restaurants such as Bondir, Flour Bakery + Café, and Craigie on Main, thinks Clover’s strategy is smart, as vegan and vegetarian restaurants often come off as too earnest. “It’s not all Birkenstocks and patchouli,” he says. “It’s food made out of vegetables…. We always preach to our clients not to exclude people. You want to tap into that greater market and create converts.”

But others in the industry find Clover’s message coy and off-putting—even while they admit to enjoying the food. “There’s a kind of evasiveness in their refusal to say they’re a vegetarian restaurant,” says Gus Rancatore, the founder and owner of Toscanini’s ice cream shop, in Cambridge. “I get that you don’t want to scare away customers or potential customers. But it’s a little like a liberal who [says they are] not a liberal. For God’s sake just say it, it’s not a bad word.”

 

Muir was raised in Bernardston, Massachusetts, a rural town on the Vermont border, in a house his parents built. The family bought most of its food at the local co-op. “Every morning he would wake up to the sound of his father grinding porridge. That’s how instant his food was,” his mother, Rebecca Muir-Harmony, jokes. The Muir-Harmony family is from the same Scottish clan as the environmentalist John Muir. His sister Teasel says their parents instilled in them a sense that they should make the “world a better place.”



 

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.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2014/07/28/clover-food-lab/