Saving the Environment, One Meal at a Time

The smell alone guides passersby’s to a new kind of fast food restaurant. French fries are still part of the menu – no fast food place would survive without them – but their food is meat-free and still delicious, nutritious and satisfying. No, people at Clover are not about making vegetarian food for vegetarians. Instead, they offer non-vegetarians healthier options while making a significant contribution to the environment.

Clover Food Lab is a small fast food chain with fast food chain prices, but instead of offering a regular cheeseburger with French fries and a soda, their menu consists of vegetarian meals made with fresh high-quality ingredients from local farms. This accounts for only 10 percent of their environmental contribution; the rest comes from not serving meat.

While Clover maintains a minimum-to-zero waste policy, paper-saving measures and other well-known eco-friendly actions, 90 percent of their aid is preparing only vegetarian meals. They don’t advertise it; instead they offer flavorful options and let the food do the job.

Founder Ayr Muir, 34, stepped down from his former job at McKinsey & Co., driven by his interest in the environment. After researching how to turn his interest into action, he learned some facts that are almost never spoken of.

“[To help the environment] there are two things you can do: No. 1 is to stop burning coal all together. No. 2, stop eating meat altogether,” said Muir. “I can have a bigger impact working on food.”

The next step was to get a chef. That’s when Rolando Robledo came into the picture. While still completing his college degree at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Robledo teamed up with Muir to create Clover Food Lab. The food had to be so good that non-vegetarians would eat there instead of anywhere else. “Nobody has done that before,” said Muir while explaining the project’s objectives.

Regular food chains serve processed foods such as egg, cheese and sausage sandwiches, while some of Clover’s breakfast options are granola with yogurt and compote, baked apple and popover.

Interested in some lunch instead? Hit the chains and get a burger or chicken fingers. Head to Clover and get a chickpea plate, a soy BLT,r curried cauliflower soup and never spare the French fries with rosemary! All very simple plates made with such care that they lure non-vegetarians into choosing them over processed food.

Muir graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after studying material science. In his college years, food trucks parked on campus served their meals to the students. While thinking about putting his food lab in motion, he decided the first step would be to rent a truck and try out the menu.

However, when he attempted to rent such a truck, he received a lucky bit of bad news. He could not rent, but he would be taught everything there is to know about food trucks. Shortly after, he was offered a spot and he got his parking space at MIT.

“In October 2008, we sold our first sandwich,” Muir recalls. When their testing period ended around a month later, Muir and Robledo thought that was the end of their project. The customers, however, were not ready to let them go.

“A student sent me an email that said, ‘wimped out?’” said Muir. “People at Kendall Square were wondering when service would be restored.”

The truck had been closed for four months. At customers’ request it made its triumphant return.

It took Muir and Robledo two and a half years to lift Clover from the ground, but once it took off they opened a location in Harvard Square in 2010.

“I had a dream, what if everything is compostable?” With this thought, Muir took a step further than recycling. Instead of reusing waste, why not try to eliminate it entirely? After a small battle with the property management, Clover’s new location was finally able to compost.

“With the trucks it is a bit [trickier],” said Muir. There is no compost, and while they set up bins for customers to separate their trash, it is tough to control what people dump in them.

Clover continues to push environmental innovation through food and technology. “Sixty percent of the menu changes in the course of few days, probably every four days,” said Muir. “Restaurants typically plan their menu seasonally, so it changes every three to four months. And chains change theirs almost never.”

This constant menu update would require several reprints each week. To spare the trees, it is displayed live on a screen. If they run out of certain ingredients, they can update electronically within seconds, apologize to the customers, and offer an alternative.

Similarly, Clover is strongly engaged with their customers through social media. They send “mass texts” through their Twitter accounts (each location has one), and receive feedback from customers.

“When people don’t like a certain ingredient, we change it and make something different,” said Muir about their customers’ tweets. Using technology as a tool is an important part of the project. Credit and debit cards are processed with iPhones, and Clover’s website and Twitter accounts provide information about new menus, seasonal specials and other news.

Two of Clover’s locations, Inman Square and Harvard Square, are opened seven days a week; from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. respectively. Additionally, there are six trucks around the Greater Boston area, including Government Center and Boston University. The original location remains at MIT.

Clover provides excellent food in a relaxing and invigorating environment, all for a great cause. After all, as their slogan states, “everything will be different tomorrow.”

-Alexandra Gyarfas

Photo Credit: Clover Food Lab