By Joseph Winters ’20
Aside from representing the interests of the association’s 18,000 restaurants in the statehouse and the marketplace, The Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA) hosts an annual awards dinner to recognize Massachusetts’s food industry innovators. This year’s awards were hosted on February 27 at the Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center in Boston, and Cambridge’s own Ayr Muir, CEO and Founder of Clover Food Labs, was named Limited Service Restaurateur of the Year.
I got to speak with the MRA’s CEO, Bob Luz, about the award. And then I heard from Mr. Muir about what made him and his brand stand out.
As CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, Bob Luz helps represent the best interests of the 18,000 restaurants in the association’s directory, lobbying at the state house, providing networking opportunities for members, and facilitating group buying opportunities that would normally only be available to larger companies.
It’s a big job, one that Mr. Luz worked up to after getting a degree in hospitality management from UMass Amherst, working in traditional full-service restaurants and then in human resources for really big restaurant companies. Four years ago, he transitioned to the MRA and has since worked face-to-face with lots of smaller restaurant owners to help their businesses grow.
Luz also helps coordinate the MRA’s annual awards ceremony, in which five individuals are recognized for standing out in five categories. One award honors the Limited Service Restaurateur of the Year, who Luz described as a standout chef at“any food and beverage operation that is not a full-service restaurant.” Like a kiosk or one of those trendy “fast-casual” places that are popping up throughout Boston.
Nominations for the award are sent in by all members of the MRA, a selection committee reviews the nominations, and they release a final decision. Clover has received nominations for the past three years, but it wasn’t until the 2017 awards that Ayr Muir finally secured his title. “People saw continued passion to change the way America thinks about eating,” Luz says of Muir and his Clover empire, which has grown from a single food truck to a multi-location brick-and-mortar chain within a handful of years, also cultivating “hordes of customers that come in five, six times a week,” Luz adds.
Although customers may love Clover because the food is delicious, there are a few other factors that have put Muir in the spotlight. After reading a United Nations report on the environmental impacts of animal agriculture called “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” Muir thought he could have the biggest impact on reducing meat consumption by getting into the fast food business and offering plenty of meat-free alternatives. “To have the maximum impact we have to serve lots and lots of people,” Muir explains.
However, although you won’t find meat on any Clover menu, Muir is not necessarily in the “vegetarian” food business,. “Our goal is to help people who otherwise eat meat to change their eating habits,” Muir says. The word “vegetarian” is never used in any of Clover’s advertising or on their menus, avoiding potentially negative connotations associated with vegetarianism. As Luz saw it, “even though they don’t serve ‘normal protein,’ they don’t call themselves a vegetarian concept, and the reason they don’t is because they’ll jump to the conclusion that it’s not going to be delicious food.”
By sourcing locally and emphasizing vegetables, Clover also offers a healthier dining experience than your typical fast food joint. “Chances are, a Clover meal is going to be healthier than a meal one of our customers would have eaten otherwise,” Muir explains. And he’s probably right—in Harvard Square, at least, other nearby grab-and-go options include Shake Shack, Tasty Burger, El Jefe’s, and other red meat- and refined carb-heavy options.
But perhaps Clover’s crowning achievement is that you don’t really need to know anything about how local the produce is or how much healthier their sandwiches are. “People make their decisions about food based on value and convenience and taste,” Muir explains, not health or carbon footprint. Achieving these factors is what has given meaning to all of Muir’s behind-the-scenes grunt work on health and sustainability. The final product: a healthy, greener chickpea fritter sandwich that you can dig into in fewer than seven minutes from the time you place your order. This is what set Muir apart, possibly enough to be named the 2017 Limited Service Restaurateur of the Year.
Muir says he was surprised to receive the award because his business model is so different from the industry norm, but the norm seems to be changing. Who knows, “Clover may just be bigger than McDonald’s some day!” Luz laughed. It’s a lofty goal, but I’d have to agree with Luz’s evaluation: at the end of the day, “it’s just good food.” I’d take the Chickpea Fritter Sandwich over a Big Mac any day.