A customer favorite at Clover Food Lab is the Chickpea Fritter, which includes hummus falafel, pickled cucumbers, carrots, red cabbage and tahini sauce.
(Photo: David DelPoio for USA TODAY)
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. - Clover Food Lab is so efficient, it claims to be able to serve six to 10 customers a minute and make a meal in three-and-a-half minutes flat.
Why should McDonald's have all the fun? Clover's food is locally sourced, organic, vegetarian healthy stuff made from scratch. Walk in the door, and next thing you know, you're holding a pita stuffed with egg and eggplant or a barbecue sandwich made with seitan, a meat substitute..
When a crowd comes in, employees rush to meet them, taking orders on iPhones, scanning credit cards with mobile scanner Square, and giving change from money belts. When the crowd dies down, they rush to the kitchen and start chopping.
The restaurant looks more like one of the nearby MIT science labs than a typical eatery. Gleaming equipment is on display around the large kitchen behind the counter. Fresh ingredients sit behind glass refrigerator doors. The decoration is minimal, the walls, white, and the lighting, fluorescent.
The menu, which changes daily to accommodate the fluctuating availability of local and organic ingredients, is displayed on what looks like a white board. Actually, it's a flat-screen monitor with everything typed out in a font that founder Ayr Muir designed to look like his handwriting.
"People have all sorts of negative associations with fast food, but there's lots of good things about fast food, too. There's a reason we eat so much of it as a country," says Muir.
Restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky takes issue with the menu. To accommodate new seasonal veggies and the fluctuating supplies of local farms, Clover's menu, which has nine lunch items and about as many items for breakfast, plus drinks and a kids menu, changes just about every day. Dinner is the same as lunch. The most popular items, such as the chickpea fritter sandwich, stick around, but other items move in and out. Lipksy says people won't go to a restaurant that doesn't always have their favorite dish.
"People are creatures of habit. They go for the food. Clover's doing everything they can to discourage people," she says. "It's going to be very difficult to win loyalty."
Regardless, Clover says it serves more than a thousand customers a day, and will be adding more locations in May - one in Boston and one in Burlington - to its list, which already includes locations in Harvard Square and Cambridge and a fleet of seven food trucks, which offer the same food as the restaurants, minus beer and a kids menu.
Listening to Muir talk about Clover is like listening to an engineer talk about making an engine more efficient.
Employees do just about everything on iPhones, from taking orders to e-mailing receipts and nutrition information, using form-building app Wufoo. When customers come in, they're greeted by an employee with an iPhone. The order goes into Wufoo, and gets sent to the kitchen. Wufoo tells the cooks what's been ordered, and how long the customer's been waiting. Clover also keeps track of its ingredient inventory on Wufoo, and syncs it with the menu. Once an item runs out, it's automatically taken off the ordering interface and struck from the screen displaying the menu to customers.
While the efficiency of Clover's point-of-sale system is built on technology, the food-making speed strategy is less high-tech.
"There's nothing revolutionary or very advanced. Everything is just very simple," says Rolando Robledo, Clover's head chef. If veggies can be washed instead of peeled, they're getting washed. If something doesn't have to be strained, it's not going to be strained. Any ingredient more complicated than a sliced tomato is prepared earlier in the day.
The V Word
Muir's got a planet-saving mission, which he says he tries to keep under his hat, because he's afraid it'll scare away customers.
He decided to start an all vegetarian restaurant after hearing that the livestock industry creates more greenhouse gases than almost any other. He says he knew no non-vegetarian would buy an all-vegetarian meal unless it tasted fantastic, so he'd have to use the best-tasting veggies around, mostly from organic and local farms. To make affordable meals with the expensive veggies, though, he'd have to focus on super-high volume, which was what got him thinking about efficiency.
Each employee gets trained in a knife skills class with a timed chopping competition, which keeps the food fast ... and vegetarian.
"We call it 'The V Word'," says communications chief Lucia Jazayeri. Who wants to eat something with "vegetarian" written all over it? Vegetarians, and only vegetarians, she says. The target audience is non-vegetarian.
"We're not trying to turn people into vegetarians," says Muir. "You take the meat out if it, but you still want it to be something you love and dream about."
Muir says 90% of his customers are non-vegetarian. Many still ask if something's got meat in it after being regulars for months.
The meatlessness doesn't bother Clover regular Troy Schuler, 26, who says he eats there around five times a week. "If anything, it's a good way to keep my weekday diet meat free," he says.
What seals the deal for Schuler: the bright fluorescent lighting. "It's cheap, healthy and well-lit, so it's a great place to get work done.
Oliver St. John, USA TODAY