Fast (food) and Local (food): Find Both at the Clover Food Lab
by George A.Warner
Photographs by: Katie Noble
Fast (food) and local (food) don’t usually go together. As summer winds down and the harvest turns from tomatoes and zucchini to winter squash and leeks, we are more likely to think of simmering soup and a slice from a hearty loaf of whole-grain bread rather than a $5 sandwich wrapped in foil with a side of fries served out of a truck. Clover, parked in Kendall Square and Dewey Square, frankly, is on a mission to prove our stereotypes of local food wrong.
Both head chef Rolando Robledo and founder Ayr Muir will attest to it: Clover Food Lab is fast food. For Rolando, being fast means Clover has a small, focused menu, is cheap and tastes good. But instead of soggy buns, factory-formed meat patties and tomatoes more grey than red, Clover’s menu relies on fresh vegetables, vegetarian proteins and a heavy dose of on-site prep work. Judging by the long trailing line behind the truck on a recent Tuesday afternoon—and a new lease for a restaurant in Harvard Square—mixing “fast” and “local” has been a success.
Rolando and Ayr never even thought that they were going to be in the food truck business. After deciding that tasting parties and focus groups would not do the trick, they bought a used truck, refurbished it and started testing menu ideas for a future restaurant. Their plan was to use the truck as their lab, close it down and then open a restaurant. Seven weeks after opening the truck, as planned, they closed down. Only customer protests—still visible on Clover’s blog—made them reconsider. After waiting out the winter, they reopened inMarch 2009.They have only grown since with two Clover trucks on the road.
Clover Food Lab takes its name seriously.While the four main sandwiches have stayed the same since the first day, everything is tested, tried, improved and perfected. They switched from taking orders on paper to using iPod touches not because it was a gimmick, but because it allowed the truck to take more orders in less time and with fewer errors. Rolando drives down to Brooklyn once a week to pick up the whole-grain pitas that are the basis for every sandwich. It is not the most local option, but it’s a testament to their drive to perfection; Ayr and Rolando decided the bakery was the only one that could make a pita that tasted good enough in the quantities they needed.
The drive for perfection goes down to the employees as well. Matt, a truck manager, recounted the morning Ayr watched him make the breakfast sandwich over and over until he got it just right. The softboiled Chip-In Farm egg had to have just the right amount of run and the Grafton Village cheddar slice had to be thin enough to melt, but thick enough to have substance.
While serving breakfast—which includes absolutely delicious popovers with rhubarb compote in addition to the sandwiches—the staff on the truck already starts prepping for lunch. In June, thin sticks of radish and slices of cucumber were being cut for the daily salad while potatoes—Rolando and Ayr swear by low-starch Prince Edward Island potatoes—are being cut for the rosemary French fries. It’s a type of prep work more likely found in Rialto than another food truck—and maybe why Rialto chef Jodi Adams called the Egg and Eggplant sandwich one of the best new foods of 2009.
But the tinkering drive at Clover would not be so admirable if it were not for the sort of community Ayr and Rolando have built around the restaurant. Every staff member’s birthday arrives with free cupcakes at the truck—unannounced until lunch, so you have to show up early. The flavors have varied from butterscotch cake with coconut butterscotch frosting to vegan chocolate with mint frosting, but they are all based off of a Depression-era wacky cake recipe from Ayr’s grandmother. Matt is proud to know many of his customers by name and Ayr is quick to note that the Clover community is not just a bunch of MIT students—he says they are 20% of the customers at most. AnMIT security guard is a regular at breakfast and a lot of the construction workers in the neighborhood stop by for lunch. The plain white truck and minimal marketing Clover has done is a testament to its loyal following. Ayr knows he does not need to keep a flashy van or have a big sign; Clover can rely on the word of mouth and trust that once someone has had the chickpea fritter sandwich, they are going to come again.
While Clover tries to buy local, seasonal and organic, they do not advertise it at the truck. The lack of meat on the menu is kept equally hush. Clover is vegetarian, but without “a vegetarian ethos.” Ayr and Rolando just want to serve fresh, cheap and healthy food—meat cannot fit into that equation, but local ingredients most certainly do. In the end, Rolando says, the food “has to taste phenomenal.” It most certainly does.
Clover Food Lab trucks can be found weekdays at Clover MIT: 20 Carleton Street, Cambridge (near Kendall T stop) Clover Dewey: Summer Street & Atlantic Avenue, Boston (near South Station T stop).
George Alejandro Warner is finishing his degree in Science Studies at Brown University this fall. His writing has appeared in The College Hill Independent, The Nation and now Edible Boston! He has weak spots for goat cheese, zucchini and dark chocolate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.