Tasty Fast Local Food: Fact or Fiction

by Sherrie Kelly

By: Kaitlyn Lawrence and David Smith

Ever thought fast food and local food could go together? Well it can in Massachusetts. Over the past two weeks the Sustainability Semester experienced organizations trying to sustain themselves in ways that enhance quality of life and the environment. Clover Food Lab, located in Cambridge, MA is a food business that wanted to show that it is possible to produce and distribute wholesome food, fast to customers. Clover is a restaurant, and also has food trucks that distribute mobile fast food around the Boston area. Staying in Boston for two weeks has made it clear that food accessibility for many Bostonians is difficult. Clover tries to provide healthy fresh food for a reasonable price.

Unraveling our food system is a dirty task. Whether it is discovering who grows our food, where it is grown, if it is genetically modified, organic or non-organic, humane animal treatment, almost everything is hidden. However, Clover is the epitome of transparent.

Stepping into the restaurant we were greeted with friendly smiles and great customer service. The counter was the only thing between the kitchen hub and sitting area, nothing was left to the imagination. It was the first time Kaitlyn had ever seen a fry cutter, turning a potato into slices of fries in three seconds.  The kitchen transformed into a busy beehive before our eyes as the workers began preparing for the next meal. The kitchen was lit by natural sunlight with large south facing windows, clean white walls, and the food was kept in see-through refrigerators and re-stocked each night. The trucks distribute food to eleven different places from Harvard Square to Park Street, even to Alewife near the metro station. Catering to a wide variety of places allows for different socioeconomic backgrounds to utilize the food trucks. One of the missions of Clover Food Lab is to make sure that money is not a factor for customers. Keeping their prices low is key to the business. Healthy fresh food should not be a privilege or for the elite.

The driving principle of the food produced and prepared at Clover is prepared with the freshest ingredients (usually 24-48 hours from when it was harvested because they have no freezers), as quickly as they can (service time is 3.5 minutes per order), source as many ingredients as locally as possible (40-85% of ingredients depending on the season), and provide a tasty, nutritious meal that meets a variety of dietary restrictions. 

This fast food chain uses a hybrid food procurement system that incorporates direct sourcing from farms and a regional mid-sized produce distributor. Clover attempts to source as locally as possible. The produce that cannot be sourced locally comes through the regional distributor. Although a very large percentage of their food is local and organic Clover does not advertise any of these principles. The name of the company does not reveal that they only serve vegetarian options. Clover believes that labeling their food as vegetarian may deter people from coming and trying their food. By having no labels customers are able to focus on the fresh taste of their food.

Within their hub, transparency is a core principle; highlighting farmers that supply Clover with fresh local produce is just one of the ways this business goes above and beyond.  Too many times customers are excluded from knowing the whole process of how their meal come to be.  When a customer can associate a face to their food, they form a deeper connection with what they purchase.  This farm to table relationship not only benefits the customer but also strengthens the relationship between the Clover restaurants and food trucks with their farmers.  By presenting photographs of their farmers, the restaurant enforces the respect they have for each of their growers which is beneficial throughout the business.

As the seasons fluctuates so does the food.  During the winter months the menu is based upon storage vegetables such as squash.  As the snow recedes and the birds return in the spring, greens are incorporated like swiss chard and spinach.  During the peak of growing season there is a rainbow of different produce such as berries and peppers. However, not only is the menu seasonal, it changes every week depending on what ingredient is in excess.  If a farmer has a certain crop that ripens all at the same time, Clover will design the entire menu around that ingredient that is in excess amount.  For example, during a time of excess beets, Chris (the head chef) designed shakes, salads, and sandwiches around beets.  Having a seasonal menu has its perks and disadvantages.  With an ever changing menu it is important that all the food trucks understand how to make each sandwich, this can be time consuming and troublesome.  The benefits do outweigh the extra effort, and the changing menu gives the customers variety while teaching them certain foods are not accessible year round at the local scale.

From seed to table and table to soil, Clover highlights the importance of fresh healthy food and good stewardship of the earth.  As we finished up with our savory meals such as the barbeque seitan sandwich, David could not help but notice that there were no garbage cans anywhere to be found in the restaurant except for a lone compost can.  Everything that Clover hands to the customer --from the plate or sandwich wrapper to the clear plastic-like cup is 100% compostable.  One more way Clover is working to develop better sustainable practices.

After visiting with Clover and eating savory vegetarian dishes, it is clear that it is a myth that fresh local food has to be expensive in a farm to table restaurant.  By not incorporating meat into their menus, Clover can offer a variety of fresh local options on their menus at a reasonable and competitive price to McDonald’s or Burger King.  This new fast food chain is a model for all farm to table restaurants to serve fresh, local, tasty, and healthy meals at a reasonable price for every meal of the day and in every season.  Although, it cannot source 100% of its produce from local farmers, Clover is doing the next best thing with the resources they have to serve the greater Boston area.  If you ever find yourself in Boston or the surrounding area, make sure to stop by and treat your taste buds to some delicious local food.

pic 1 - Chris the head chef of Clover Food explaining the operation of the business.

pic 2 - Food prep to fine dining, transparency is a key aspect of the restaurant.

pic 3 - Chickpea Fritter Platter (Photo taken by Jamie Oriol).

pic 4 - Clover Kitchen and Hub.  (Photo taken by Alex Smith/St. Lawrence University).