Clover is taking its food trucks off the streets.

Credit: Courtesy of Clover

LISTEN: Clover Founder On Why The Food Trucks Are Coming Off The Streets

August 7, 2017

Susan Kaplan: This is All Things Considered, I'm Susan Kaplan. Clover, the self-styled food lab that's been serving up chick pea fritters, barbecued seitan, and other healthy, tasty fast food in and around Boston for the better part of a decade now, is putting its food trucks back in the garage. Clover’s brick and mortar restaurants aren't going anywhere, but today was the last day that its trucks were out on the streets. Here to explain the decision is Clover founder, Ayr Muir. Thanks for joining us, Ayr.

Ayr Muir: Thank you.

Susan Kaplan: So food trucks are how you got started back in 2008 and droves of hungry people have been flocking to your trucks in Dewey Square and on Newbury Street for years now. Why are you stopping?

Ayr Muir: Well it's bittersweet, for sure. We first served out of a food truck in late 2008 when I had this crazy idea of trying to serve vegetables to carnivores. I thought it was exciting, but I didn't know if it would work. So I wasn't confident enough to open a whole restaurant. So, for us, initially, it was a way to test our menu. But we loved the truck so much we ended up keeping them open and expanding them to the point where we were operating seven. We had the biggest fleet in the country at one point. But we're moving on now to a new stage in the company.

Susan Kaplan: Well, did you build the first clover food truck yourself?

Ayr Muir: It's true. The first truck — I actually would park it over in the Home Depot parking lot because I kept getting sick of running back and forth for things I'd forgotten in there.

Susan Kaplan: So you mean it was breaking?

Ayr Muir: Well I was building it — I was cutting out the side of it and doing the plumbing. I don't know if you've done a home renovation project, but I always forget and have to run back and forth the pick up parts, so I just parked it in the parking lot and turned on the generator and I was working on it there. But yeah, the first truck I built myself. I think that my employees all loved it once we got one built by a professional with truck number two and three and so on.

Susan Kaplan: But the first one — what's going to happen to that, the original? Going in a museum?

Ayr Muir: Well I am a little attached to it so, you figured me out there. We’re saving that truck. We're going to save two of them. We have a number of events we do and catering and we're not going to stop that. So we'll keep two trucks to keep supporting those things, and truck No. 1, the one I built, will be one of those two that we keep.

Susan Kaplan: As you just said, you know, Clover's food trucks were some of the first food trucks to hit the streets in and around Boston, so I'm wondering what you think is the difference about running a food truck now versus nine years ago, because I imagine some of those differences are part of the reason why you're stopping.

Ayr Muir: Yeah, for us the food truck was sort of an accidental thing. We started it to try to test our menu and, people don't remember this, but we actually ran for three months and then we shut down, and I had so many e-mails, I'd gotten to know so many customers so well that three or four months later we decided to reopen it and run it more like a business. But, it was initially, for us, just a way to test a menu. But we got caught up in the wave of the food truck revolution. All of a sudden, it spread like wildfire and the recession was hitting and this was a story that people, you know, caught their imaginations. Wall Street Journal had a list of top 10 food trucks in the country really early on and we were right up there. And it was a real moment, I think, for the industry and it was a lot of excitement for everybody. And when we opened the truck in Boston, that was the very first food truck in Boston for a long time. There used to be trucks back in the seventies and then they'd been shut down.

Susan Kaplan: Well, you know, I often think of, I mean, ice cream trucks have been around seemingly for a very long time, but the food in a truck and the fact that you'd be moving around — except you really didn't move the truck around did you?

Ayr Muir: Yeah.

Susan Kaplan: So, why the truck?

Ayr Muir: We drive to the site and we drive back from the site. It allows you to try different sites with flexibility in a different way than you can with a restaurant. So it's a great testing vehicle, and we loved it for that. Mayor Menino ate at our truck and that really, you know, he told us that sparked his idea to do the food truck program in Boston. We worked closely with the city in the early days of that, so you know, it feels great to be in that position and we've helped as many folks as we can get started. We used to run a food truck 101 seminar …

Susan Kaplan: Food truck 101 — out of the truck, no doubt?

Ayr Muir: We actually did that over in our commissary a couple of years in a row and it was packed. It would sell out and there were a couple hundred people. And I think, you know, we're in a little different era right now. I think the food trucks really were linked with that downturn in the economy. It was really hard for aspiring chefs to get the capital to open a restaurant and a food truck is a really low barrier to entry. I think on the other hand, there's a limit to how big you can run it. There's only so much food you can pack in a truck, and ...

Susan Kaplan: And only so many trucks you can flood the streets with.

Ayr Muir: Absolutely, so we're at a place now where we love the trucks. It takes about as much effort to run a truck as it does at least one restaurant if not two. So there's a whole lot that goes into ... there's a lot of hassle and effort.

Susan Kaplan: It is true, I think, that people are shifting a little bit in terms of what kind of food, how much takeout food they want or whether they want to sit in a restaurant. Did you find the demand for the food truck or what people were wanting to shift in any way and did that in any way sort of determine why you made this decision?

Ayr Muir: I don't have any information on a broader level if there's, you know, real changes in the sales or anything like that. For us, we've done well with our trucks through. We've de-emphasized them, obviously, as we've been growing the restaurants and having so much success with the restaurants, but we've actually been happy. The trucks are profitable for us, we just want to focus our attention to other places.

Susan Kaplan: OK, thanks for joining us, Ayr.

Ayr Muir: Thank you so much for having me.

Susan Kaplan: That's Ayr Muir, founder of Clover Food Lab. Aside from special events, today was the last day that Clover's food trucks were out on the street.

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