Stealth vegetarian restaurant wants to woo diners on taste alone

It’s a belief in change through the taste buds: Can one locavore business grow the ranks of non-meat eaters, plus focus on building real relationships with buyers and sellers? 

Ayr Muir founded Clover Food Lab in the Boston area. It focuses on in-season, locally sourced vegetables. “It’s a quiet action,” he says. “But I think it’s the most radical environmental action you can take, really: changing what you eat and then influencing others around you.”

Ann Hermes/Staff

Ayr Muir stands slightly to the side of the stainless steel table that’s covered in trays holding miniature cups of chilled soups. He is curious and mostly quiet as he tries dish after dish during one of Clover Food Lab’s weekly development meetings. He is equally comfortable pointing out issues or praising a component.

For being the chief executive officer of this restaurant chain, he is very much not the focus of the meeting where employees and customers are presenting and tasting new recipes. Mr. Muir slips out to take a few calls and greets an employee who brought her newborn baby, all over the chatter of 20 or so meeting participants.

The group is tasting everything from coffee and iced tea to vegan egg sandwiches and BLT chilled soup (tempeh bacon and spinach in a puréed tomato soup seasoned with garlic and za’atar).

A young Boston restaurateur who’s helping to change the game

“I’ve never had that before,” one customer exclaims. Others note how creamy the BLT soup is, and the crispy, full flavor of the tempeh bacon.

That’s exactly Muir’s goal: giving people a new food experience with a focus on in-season, locally sourced vegetables.

“We’re trying to do this very ambitious thing: Take someone who loves meat – and probably a lot of them don’t think they like vegetables, and some of them actually think they hate vegetables – and we’re trying to get that person to make their own decision to change their meals [and] change their habits,” he says.

Clover, which has 10 restaurants and two Whole Foods kiosks in the Boston area, wants to change the ideas people have about all-vegetable fare. Part of that plan? Never using the word vegetarian. Some customers don’t even realize the absence of meat until they’ve eaten at Clover several times, says Lucia Jazayeri, the restaurant chain’s creative director.

In the United States, the average consumer will eat 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry this year, according to the Agriculture Department. So Muir sees the primary mission of Clover as getting people to eat more vegetables. The enterprise, he notes, also supports regional agriculture by sourcing locally, and it gives people an opportunity to learn about the consequences of personal food choices. Clover tries to provide that opportunity without being patronizing, and to that end, Muir named his business after his daughter’s puppet, seeing it as a memorable and friendly name.

“It’s a quiet action, but I think it’s the most radical environmental action you can take, really: changing what you eat and then influencing others around you,” he says.

Clover’s revenues have been growing 50 percent each year, and it currently employs just under 400 people, Muir says. But it’s still figuring out how to survive in an industry not yet built to support its commitment to sourcing locally and not serving meat.

Flipping burgers first

Before Clover launched with a food truck in 2008, Muir used six weeks of vacation time from a consulting job at McKinsey & Co. to work at a Burger King and Panera Bread. That was after he was rejected from 12 McDonald’s. He wanted to learn about the fast-food industry so he could build a better business model. His goal for a meatless venture was inspired by the environmental effect of meat consumption, a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally.

He says that at the Panera where he worked, he never saw a refrigerator, just freezers. Clover has no freezers; rather, the kitchens have refrigerators with see-through doors that reveal clear containers containing grains and colorful vegetables.

At Burger King, he identified what he viewed as small design inefficiencies, such as receipts not grouping items by type, which he felt contributed to low order accuracy. But he was also inspired by those around him, including a shift manager who showed him one way to make cookies: Remove from freezer, place on tray, plop into oven, and press the “cookies” button. Then, in a departure from the official process, she would set another timer that went off slightly before the oven timer. The cookies, she said, were chewy and delicious, and the restaurant sold more of them.

“In this very mechanized, systematized company, despite that, this very human instinct of trying to make things yummy was busting through even at her own [employment] risk,” he says.

At Clover, Muir allows employees to experiment – with boundaries. He specializes in these contained experiments, perhaps a holdover from running materials characterization laboratories and studying materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. At any given time, Clover is experimenting with a few dozen changes, constantly collecting customer feedback through its food development meetings, other food tastings, surveys, and social media. “In a way Clover is a giant R&D project,” Muir says.

The company’s food developers contact suppliers weekly to see what is tasty and available. About 93 percent of Clover’s menu is not fixed. Also, the development meetings offer space for employees and customers to bring in their own ideas, ones that often lead to Clover’s most successful items.

‘Vegetables are pretty cool’

Elina Sendonaris, a student at MIT, is one of the meeting attendees. The meetings have in turn inspired her personal cooking, as well as her participation in a farm share program that Clover runs with Winter Moon Roots Farm in Hadley, Mass. She laughs when asked if she normally doesn’t eat meat: “I’m a fan [of meat], but I think vegetables are pretty cool, too.”

For Muir failure, as long as it’s not harmful to customers or too costly, is part of the process. He tries to be transparent about mistakes, both small and large, often writing about them on the company blog.

In July, Clover paid $79,338 in back wages and liquidated damages to 65 employees after a US Department of Labor investigation found the business paid some employees straight time instead of overtime. Muir responded in a blog post saying that he had not been aware he was misclassifying his food truck managers.

In 2009, Ms. Jazayeri applied to work on a Clover food truck. She remembers that the first time she met Muir, he told her she hadn’t washed the truck correctly. And then he promptly showed her how to do it. He is hands-on and interested in making processes efficient, she says.

He visits several restaurants daily and is “always attuned to the smallest details,” Jazayeri says.

As a child, Muir would wake up to the sound of his father grinding rice for porridge. He didn’t love it then, but he’s a fan now. In fact, he owns a personal grain mill.

When he talks about food, it’s with an awe-filled attention to detail. “He’s not the type of boss that’s just like, ‘Set it and forget it,’ ” Jazayeri says.

She adds, “He really does feel like people should know ... about where their food is coming from and they should become as passionate about food as he is.”

Depending on the season, between 40 and 90 cents of every dollar that Clover spends on food goes to the regional food system, according to the company’s blog. The fact that Clover can provide high-quality “affordable real food” and have the flexibility to work with what’s in season on a large scale excites Michael Docter, owner of Winter Moon Roots Farm, which has been a supplier to Clover for about eight years.

“The nice thing about working with Clover is we’ve always felt like we’re on a team. And that’s not the traditional relationship between buyers and sellers in the produce marketplace. But with Clover, they want it to work,” Mr. Docter says.

For Ethan Sherbondy, Clover’s systems engineer, the restaurant chain offers “vegetarian food without all the ... ceremony and without the holier-than-thou attitude.” A contrast to that, he says, is a scene he witnessed at a vegan restaurant in Cambridge. A woman chased somebody out of the establishment for wearing a leather coat.

“This idea that to change the food system it has to be a war is not something you will find at Clover,” he says.

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