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Ayr Muir is the Founder and CEO of Clover Food Lab, a nationally recognized restaurant company operating 12 restaurants in the Greater Boston Area. Clover seeks to help meat lovers become vegetable lovers. For the average American, eating a meal without meat is the most dramatic step that can be taken to address global warming. Starting with a food truck in 2008, and opening his first restaurant in 2011, Muir has built a passionate base of customers, 90% of whom are not vegetarian. Clover sources an unprecedented amount of its menu from regional suppliers and helps improve the health of its customers with nutritionally conscious options.
Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to founding Clover?
Ayr Muir: I was born in rural Massachusetts, just over the Vermont border, and grew up with farmers as neighbors. I went to MIT for engineering and material sciences, and thought I would go into clean energy or wind power after school. I went to HBS with visions of starting a company that would help the environment. When I had my daughter I became really focused on being part of building a better world for her to grow up in. Someone forwarded me one of the first UN studies linking livestock production to climate change, and I started thinking about how I could impact this huge issue using food. What if I could create a restaurant serving vegetables that would directly target non-vegetarians? A few things fell into place, and Rolando [Robledo] and I pulled up a tiny white food truck to the MIT campus in October of 2008. We had no idea what we were doing and we were two hours late the first day, but we figured things out and soon there were long lines, and more trucks, and more restaurants, and a team of employees who feel like family.
ZD: Interactions with and feedback from patrons seems to be at the core of your mission and business model. You’ve written, “We’re not the lab, well not just us. You’re the lab. You and us. It’s a beautiful collaborative effort.” Can you tell me a bit more about your open food innovation process and the importance of transparency and interactivity with customers?
AM: The early days on the truck, when it was just two of us, we would interview every customer about what they ate, and make changes that night. We do this to this day, but on a much larger scale. We have an open food development meeting where anyone can come. We train our staff to ask questions: Did you like that? What could make it better? Some of our best items (the Bridgewater, for example, that’s on the menu right now) are invented by staff members. Others (the Hungarian Beet) came out because of a suggestion from a customer. We also observe trends and patterns with our customers and adjust our menu to make it easier for more folks to eat with us. We’re always looking for ways to open up the menu to more people.
ZD: On that note, what role does data play in your business model?
AM: Clover could not exist without data, and the technology that enables us to gather data. We use data everywhere, from menu development to customer experience to farm sourcing. Items don’t get a place on the permanent menu unless they have passed a bunch of tests, mainly related to customer feedback. We actually put a banner up in the restaurant where the test is taking place, and customers vote on whether we should keep the item on the menu.
We take orders using one of the first-ever Cloud based POS systems that allows us to keep track of experimental items and how they are selling. If an item is not selling well, we can pivot or remove it entirely. If it is selling well, maybe it becomes a permanent menu item. We do a monthly survey day where we ask customers general questions, and get feedback. We’ve been doing this since day one so we have amazing data from that.
We also sit down with customers for 1:1 interviews from time to time to gather deeper insights. And we have a document where we track all the feedback that comes in from our multiple channels — that allows us to see trends over time. Our kitchen runs on data, sometimes down to a really granular level.
ZD: People have called your company the future of fast food. What do you see as the future of fast food, and how are you embodying it at Clover?
AM: I imagine a network of small-scale farmers (shoutout to Michael Docter and Ray Young in Hadley who we buy much of our menu from), treating the land well, and fast food restaurants being an outlet for what they grow. Instead of food being a strain on the planet, it could actually benefit the planet.
Michael Pollan is a customer of ours, and a personal hero. I think what he said 10 years ago is still true: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” We desperately need to reduce our consumption of meat in the US, but that’s not going to happen unless the alternative is as tasty. The way you get tasty vegetables? Source from local farms. We stick pretty hard and fast to our belief that local tastes better.
This Change Maker interview was originally published July 2019 on the HubWeek blog.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.